Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Holodeck, An Ultimate Video Game

In class, we have discussed various levels of interactivity in works of fiction; ranging from a choose-your-own-adventure novel through one of the very first video games, Zork. But these mediums have somewhat limited means of interactivity, some people even doubted there interactivity at all. I believe that few people today would doubt the interactivity of any modern video game whether it be hooked up to your TV or played on a computer. But someone living in the fictional 24th century of the world of Star Trek has a much more sophisticated version of a video game, (if you could even call it that anymore) the Holodeck. The Holodeck of Star Trek is the most advanced form of interactive narrative ever conceived, even if it is contained in a work of fiction itself. It should be the ultimate guide to which all other virtual reality devices are measured and the ultimate goal of scientists and technology developers to aspire to. If this work of science fiction eventually became scientific fact, the possibilities for is use could become almost infinite in good ways and in bad. Because the simulation is so realistic, it could be used to simulate training for doctors or military personnel2. It would be the next step up from simulators of all types as well. Or take people on trips to far away places. On the other hand because this technology creates images so real and life like using the Holodeck as recreation could be taken too far and people may come to lead their lives in a virtual reality would and accept it as their new reality, possibly including many vices.

The Holodeck is often seen in the show as a way to escape the everyday life aboard a starship. Many crew members use it to play games and exercise and even participate in things called Holo-novels. Holo-novels create a storyline where the human participant often plays an active role in the story and actually becomes part of it. For instance Captain Picard often enjoys playing a private investigator and solving the cases himself, while being immersed in 1930’s or 40’s era Earth.

The Holodeck culminates the functions of three other technologies I will try to explain. The first is the Transporter; which converts matter to energy to “beam” things and people to other places, then convert that energy back into the matter in its original state. The second technology is a variation on the first, it is the Replicator. It takes energy and converts it into matter, it is mostly used to create food and other small objects. The third is a force field, which is a barrier of energy that is often used to protect people from the vacuum of space1. A fourth technology, more or less some type of projector, is needed to create the images using light on the Holodeck, but that technology is more or less not applied anywhere else other than the Holodeck. The result of all of these things seamlessly integrated is the creation of not only an image of something but what appears to be the real thing and the limits of what can be created are only defined by the programming the computer creating the simulation contains. The word Holodeck itself refers to a large room with the Holo-emmitter (a word commonly used in the series) technologies placed on the walls and ceiling. They are commonly placed in a grid pattern3. But for this imaginary tool to become real a lot of technological advances need to be made and the most notable of which would have to be the ability to turn energy into matter and vise versa. This type of conversion would only take place at temperatures so hot that they only existed shortly after the big bang. Because of this, the technology that could create a full blown virtual reality Holodeck in the Star Trek sense is very far off.

There are a few examples of very primitive Holo-devices available today, one that is in development at the University of Arizona uses a reflective polymer to display 3D images in what looks like a tank of gel. The article seems exited about this breakthrough and says that these devices may be promising to view such things as medical scans in them.

There are plenty of instances in the Star Trek series where the Holodeck is a valuable tool, so many that it would be impossible for me to name them here. But one of the most notable I can recall from memory is the doctor from Star Trek Voyager, which is the series that takes place the farthest into the future. The doctor is a hologram that performs the function of a doctor because the ship’s human doctor has been killed. “The Doctor” as he comes to be known, exists as a program containing knowledge of many medical procedures, most likely many more than any human could, that runs inside the ships computers. Since the Doctor is an entity of artificial intelligence he would presumably have the ability to make his own decisions and they could possible result in harm being done to people. That is a risk that is taken with the creating of artificial intelligence.

There is an instance of Holodeck malfunction that occurs in the episode of “The Next Generation” titled “Elementary, Dear Data”. It is where commander Data, himself an android that is superior in intelligence to humans, wants a more formidable adversary to challenge him mentally. This instruction is given to the Holodeck’s computers but is somehow misconstrued into requesting someone that can defeat Data. The result is an entity of extreme intelligence that is an extreme challenge to control.

This kind of event is precisely one that Bill Joy warns us about in his article from Wired Magazine. Placing confidence in a computer that can self replicate, as he puts it, here in the form of a human being is extremely dangerous. In the series though, this type of incident would happen in the semi-controlled environment of the Holodeck itself whereas if such a thing were to happen without such technological constraints of the Holodeck the outcome could have been much worse. Although in the episode of Star Trek: Voyager titled “Flesh and Blood” holograms from an alien species take control of an entire ship and threaten the lives of the people that created them and used them for battle simulations. This could have been caused by a number of things but the most prominent being operator error by letting the holograms out of a controlled environment. This particular episode draws parallels to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep because it’s basically a hunt for the holograms that have to be stopped because they have overstepped their bounds and must pay for it. Much like how the androids that have escaped from their domain of planets other than Earth.

Another concern raised by Joy would be the trust placed in artificial intelligence in the Holodeck. If the Holodeck contains a computer that must generate, store, and recall every image and item is has ever created, it certainly must contain AI, not only to run the programs but to have life-like characters. The possibility for that intelligent character to stop conforming to his programming and form his own agenda is an ever-present risk, as demonstrated above in the “Elementary, Dear Data” example. Joy may argue that since such an enormous amount of trust is placed in the Holodeck computers the failure of the Holodeck could be catastrophic and for a lack of a better word, freaky. It could even be freaky enough to cause mental damage to the people in it. For instance, in the book the Computers of Star Trek the example of a failure could basically involve walls turning into people. The book also mentions a world like that of an Escher painting, which would also be very disconcerting.

Since the Holodeck can create virtually any object, it is easily capable of creating weapons, as many as requested which can be used just as easily as a real weapon. If a weapon was to fall in the hands of a malicious program like the ones mentioned above the scenario could be even worse. One could also assume that since the Holodeck is so realistic it could be capable of creating things on the microscopic scale such as virulent bacteria or viruses that could infect people without their knowledge. Since the matter is in a sense artificial, its DNA could be manipulated to make it extra virulent and deadly.

All of this makes me wonder if the Holodeck could be used as a surrogate environment for a human mind. All of the necessary framework could be in place, except perhaps the interface device that would actually transfer the conscience from the human form into the computer. But there is computer capable of artificial intelligence therefore allowing the mind to be running inside of it at all times, perhaps simulating a normal environment for thought processes. If desired, the mind could then take the form of a normal human being inside the Holodeck for interaction with people. This process could be purposeful for extending someone’s life, if you could even call it that anymore. At the very least it could be viewed as preserving someone’s knowledge when the pass away.

The Holodeck is the most advanced form of interactive narrative. What the future holds for us could be very promising and exiting but there are many technological challenges that await to be surpassed. We are making progress though as evidenced by the improved primitive holographic devices being researched at the University of Arizona. But a real Holodeck is very far off and may not be possible even three hundred years from now as Gresh and Weinberg say. We should proceed with caution in creating AI as Bill Joy urges because what we create could easily outsmart us and we could lose our ability to control it. Another thing we have to concern ourselves with is how people will come to use such a new technology whether it be for good or for bad. Finally, another thing to think about is not how dangerous a new technology is but how dangerous people are using it.

Works Cited


2 In Proceedings of Fifth International Conference on Autonomous Agents, pp. 409-416, May 2001. New York: ACM Press.Toward the Holodeck: Integrating Graphics, Sound, Character and Story

3The Holodeck: A Parallel Ray-caching Rendering System Gregory Ward Larson

Silicon Graphics, Inc.


Gresh, Lois, and Robert Weinberg. The Computers of Star Trek. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Hanley, Richard. Metaphysics of Star Trek or is Data Human? New York: Basic Books, 1997.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

In this revision, your focus seems to be on imagining the real-world consequences of an imaginary technology -- which, incidentally, might mean that really you're doing a kind of creative project, if only by accident. This also calls out for justification -- why is this imaginary technology interesting/worthwhile to analyze, even though nothing vaguely like it exists? I suspect that the implicit reason has to do with its ultimate interactivity - I would have liked to see that actually worked out in the text, though.

If that material about the project at U. Arizona is important, it needed to be developed in detail and cited.

You quickly and easily demonstrate that from a certain point of view the Holodeck is just another example of the self-replicating technologies feared by Joy. So why explore this technology in particular, especially in detail - what do the discussions of various episodes accomplish, for instance, if you're really interested in the Holodeck as an example relevant to Joy?

Your conclusion is neither particularly interesting nor particularly compelling. You admit/know that this technology isn't happening any time soon, and you've demonstrated that it's just one variety of self-replicating technology - so why should we care about this (imaginary) ultimate interactivity? You never explain... What, in other words, is the readers supposed to do with this material? I'm not at all sure -- the argument is weak at best.

Also, it's short...