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January 10, 2000

Talking technology: A Q&A with the inventor of virtual reality

By Barbara McKenna

A visual artist, computer scientist, composer, and pioneer in the field of virtual reality (a term he coined), Jaron Lanier has been called one of the most extraordinary thinkers of our time. As society advances in its uneasy embrace with technology, Lanier is both advocate and antagonist of this partnership--a duality he seems to relish. One month he may oversee a public showing of his interactive computer-generated artwork and the next he may organize a public computer-bashing ceremony.

Photo of Jaron Lanier
Jaron Lanier speaks on "Technology and the Future of the Human Soul" on January 25.
Photo: Gregory Heisler
With his long, blondish dreadlocks and piercing blue eyes, Lanier looks as radical as his thoughts. His work in virtual reality has generated a range of devices and applications from interface gloves to real-time surgical simulation to virtual puppets (one of his latest projects). In his wide-ranging artistic endeavors, he has collaborated with the likes of Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, and Stanley Jordan and exhibited his paintings, drawings, and virtual art around the world.

Lanier is currently a visiting scholar with the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University, a visiting artist with New York University's Interactive Communications Program, and a founding member of the recently established International Institute for Evolution and the Brain.

Jaron Lanier speaks on "Technology and the Future of the Human Soul" on Tuesday, January 25, in the Mainstage Theater. Tickets are $18 adults; $15 seniors and students with ID; $9 UCSC students. For more information, call (831) 459-2159. This lecture is presented by UCSC Arts & Lectures in partnership with Imagesmith.

Q: You have Santa Cruz roots, don't you?

A: In 1980, my ambition was to be a Santa Cruz street musician. There were a lot of extraordinary people in Santa Cruz who took me in and supported me. . . . But there were also those extraordinarily well paying jobs in Silicon Valley and, eventually, off I went to my fate.

Q: You're considered by many to be the inventor of virtual reality. You identified the concept, and you've invented devices and software fundamental to many widely used VR applications. How would you describe your work in the field?

A: Well, I made up the term "virtual reality," and, depending on what you think the term means, I made the first instance of it. But any discussion of virtual reality has got to include mention of Ivan Sutherland who built the first head-mounted display in the '60s.

What I did was make the first virtual worlds with multiple people in them and the first that fully took advantage of the human body, having gloves and bodysuits drive virtual bodies that could pick up virtual objects.

Q: What is virtual reality?

A: Virtual reality is a computer-supported way of creating the illusion of being in an alternative world with other people. It's a sort of dreaming you do consciously that other people can be a part of. It can be used practically for such things as surgical planning or to design a car, or as an art form, to experience the joy of expression, the pain of expression.

Q: As a visual artist, you're probably best known for the virtual worlds you've created. What is the value of this digital art--is it poignant, meaningful, expressive, beautiful? Do you see something redemptive in digital art?

A: Redemptive? Hardly. I think virtual art presents a challenge. It can sometimes even be a menace that robs reality of all its meaning and of all its juice.

Every other type of artist does better by loving his/her tools--a painter loves the canvas, the paint; a sculptor, the marble. But the best digital artists hate computers. I hate computers. I personally derive pleasure from destroying computers.

Computers are the first medium to have ideas built in. Paint is a piece of nature; cameras are products of nature--they're made of metal, you use emulsions to process the images. You can say there's some theory involved with using a camera, but to find a machine that really has ideas built in, you have to go to the computer. By its nature, a computer has ideas built in because it has a program, which is, basically, ideas that have been frozen into it.

When you try to create with those frozen ideas, well, suppose you're a musician: You can't just work with a computer like it was piano, you have to stick ideas in first. Is music made of discrete notes or continuity? When you use a specific music program the choice has been made for you. So, as soon as you start using it, you start nailing yourself down. When you start working with a computer in a creative process, the danger is that you start treating these human constructions as if they came from nature, or God--however you describe it. That's a good reason to hate computers--realizing that they structurally confine you to ideas that someone thought of yesterday.

As soon as you're feeling frustrated you know you're on the right track, because you're not just slipping into the pathway the software is designed to take you on.

In every other medium you want to understand the material and see what it wants to do. But that's not true with computers. The mistaken path would be to treat the computer as paint and let it drive your process. In every other medium that's the thing to do--it's important to let the medium speak to you. But with computers you must not because computers speak bull.

Q: But you use computers in your creative work.

A: It's possible to do art with computers but it's very hard. I think that when art is at its best, it is better than the artist. You can do that with computers too, but not if you respect them.

I don't want to hold up my own work as succeeding and breaking through this problem--that's for others to decide--but there are some ways to break through and one is to be very careful not to get caught up in the computer itself. To think of it as something like a telephone instead of like a television--a channel between people. You concentrate on the people and their experiences and not on what's inside the computer.

I think a lot of people make the mistake of getting lost in the world of the computer. It's very easy to get caught in the nerd trap, and then life loses all its color.

Q: So, in the right hands, the technology can serve as a tool to help articulate a creative vision. Do you think Michelangelo could have made great electronic art?

A: I've thought about that and my best guess is, you could revive a Van Gogh or a Beethoven or some other great Western artist and they could fiddle around with the technology. What they'd make would be some great, maybe even incredible, junk. But that's about it, because they wouldn't be on guard against the technology. I've seen some skilled classical artists get involved in computers and turn out some pretty bad stuff.

Q: On the flip side, do you think computers are capable of creating great art? What do you think of David Cope's work with the program that simulates the styles of classical composers?

A: Let's imagine you and I are in a relationship and for years I've written you wonderful love letters. And I'm a computer scientist and one day I say, "You know, I'm going to prove my prowess by getting my computer to analyze all my love letters, dig out the most profound parts, and put them together to make the best love letter of all." Which would you rather get in the mail?

The point isn't the achievement, the output. The point is the actual connection. You have to remember that even great music like Bach's is only barely adequate to bridge the terrible interpersonal gap that separates people. The last thing you want to do is create an emphasis on the artifact rather than the authentic human connection. Show me a new way to be authentic and I'll get excited about that. A new way to be inauthentic, by having computer-simulated Bach, why that's as easy as lying. Truth is what's hard.

Q: What are the greatest challenges we'll face as technology becomes more and more integral to everyday life?

A: Genetic engineering--the engineering of life in general--is going to be huge in the next ten years. The general picture is going to emerge sometime soon of what we can and can't do to a person. By all indications, it looks like we can do a lot: We can extend our life spans, compose our children, even recompose ourselves as adults to a degree. I think it's going to be the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. More challenging than nuclear weapons. With nuclear weapons, the only question is, can we survive them or not. With biotechnology it's not an either/or situation, it's a design question: Who do we want to be as a species. It's a profoundly difficult question. Nobody who understands it is going to have a clear unconflicted point of view--unless they're a moron.

We'll be faced with decisions that are very subtle. And it's going to happen fast because the growth of technology is not going to be advanced by grand abstract ideals but by people with intimate, immediate needs. Technology is not going to be driven by Dr. Frankenstein but by the couple who wants to keep their baby alive.

Q: You talk about different paths that the integration of technology and humanity can lead us on. What are the dangers?

A: We are going to face the question of whether a machine and a person are the same thing. Most of my colleagues think machines should eventually be treated the same as humans and that's where I'm different. Someday computers may be able to seem intelligent and conscious--it's a possibility. And most people who believe in that possibility think that at the point when machines can act human they should be given human rights. I strongly disagree with that. There's a philosophical difficulty in that point of view: The danger is that people are so flexible that we may subconsciously make ourselves stupid in order to make the machines seem smart.

Q: What do you mean? How will we make ourselves less smart?

A: We already do it. Have you ever known anybody who borrowed money to get a credit record so that they could get a loan approved later on? That's the kind of thing that didn't happen when real people decided if you should get credit. People believe in what the computer says, but it's not smart to borrow money needlessly. We do so to convince a computer that we deserve credit.

But let's not talk about that future. Let's talk about the good future. Let's talk about what a human being is.

A human being is a sack of stuff that is conscious. And the really interesting thing about that is that the sacks are separate. That's a really amazing thing. If you were an alien advance team writing home about Earth you'd say something like, "There are all these cool species and there's one that seems to be smart, but they are all separated from each other. They're in these weird sacks they call skin."

The most fundamental aspects of the human experience are that we're separated from each other and we die. You can imagine other alien life forms that are not like that, that are something else, let's say intermingled clouds that interact and transform but don't ever die. So these are very striking things about us as humans.

Since human beings first appeared, we've sought to bridge this gap. We can look at the whole history of humanity as advances in bridging this gap--we came up with language, and we created drama, and we said, "Oh, we'll invent writing, and we'll have a telephone." You can think of technology as being a result of this incredible epic quest that people have to reach each other over this gap. And virtual reality fits in beautifully to bridge this gap as a conscious form of dreaming.

What I see in the future is people learning to be ever more expressive to each other and new forms of communication between people becoming ever more intimate and outlandish and beautiful. I don't think there's any limit to that.

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