[ExI] If you built "Westworld" (or other robot sex) it would probably be with VR

Dave Sill sparge at gmail.com
Wed Nov 2 12:20:12 UTC 2016

This is a good read. -Dave


HBO released a new version of “Westworld” based on the old movie about a
robot-based western theme park. The show hasn’t excited me yet — it repeats
many of the old tropes on robots/AI becoming aware — but I’m interested in
the same thing the original talked about — simulated experiences for

The new show misses what’s changed since the original. I think it’s more
likely they will build a world like this with a combination of VR, AI and
specialty remotely controlled actuators rather than with independent
self-contained robots.

One can understand the appeal of presenting the simulation in a mostly real
environment. But the advantages of the VR experience are many. In
particular, with the top-quality, retinal resolution light-field VR we hope
to see in the future, the big advantage is you don’t need to make the
physical things look real. You will have synthetic bodies, but they only
have to feel right, and only just where you touch them. They don’t have to
look right. In particular, they can have cables coming out of them
connecting them to external computing and power. You don’t see the cables,
nor the other manipulators that are keeping the cables out of your way
(even briefly unplugging them) as you and they move.

This is important to get data to the devices — they are not robots as their
control logic is elsewhere, though we will call them robots — but even more
important for power. Perhaps the most science fictional thing about most TV
robots is that they can run for days on internal power. That’s actually
very hard.

The VR has to be much better than we have today, but it’s not as much of a
leap as the robots in the show. It needs to be at full retinal resolution
(though only in the spot your eyes are looking) and it needs to be able to
simulate the “light field” which means making the light from different
distances converge correctly so you focus your eyes at those distances. It
has to be lightweight enough that you forget you have it on. It has to have
an amazing frame-rate and accuracy, and we are years from that. It would be
nice if it were also untethered, but the option is also open for a tether
which is suspended from the ceiling and constantly moved by manipulators so
you never feel its weight or encounter it with your arms. (That might
include short disconnections.) However, a tracking laser combined with
wireless power could also do the trick to give us full bandwidth and full
power without weight.

It’s probably not possible to let you touch the area around your eyes and
not feel a headset, but add a little SF magic and it might be reduced to
feeling like a pair of glasses.

The advantages of this are huge:

   - You don’t have to make anything look realistic, you just need to be
   able to render that in VR.
   - You don’t even have to build things that nobody will touch, or go to,
   including most backgrounds and scenery.
   - You don’t even need to keep rooms around, if you can quickly have
   machines put in the props when needed before a player enters the room.
   - In many cases, instead of some physical objects, a *very* fast
   manipulator might be able to quickly place in your way textures and
   surfaces you are about to touch. For example, imagine if, instead of a
   wall, a machine with a few squares of wall surface quickly holds one out
   anywhere you’re about to touch. Instead of a door there is just a robot arm
   holding a handle that moves as you push and turn it.
   - Proven tricks in VR can get people to turn around without realizing
   it, letting you create vast virtual spaces in small physical ones. The
   spaces will be designed to match what the technology can do, of course.
   - You will also control the audio and cancel sounds, so your
   behind-the-scenes manipulations don’t need to be fully silent.
   - You do it all with central computers, you don’t try to fit it all
   inside a robot.
   - You can change it all up any time.

In some cases, you need the player to “play along” and remember not to do
things that would break the illusion. Don’t try to run into that wall or
swing from that light fixture. Most people would play along.

For a lot more money, you might some day be able to do something more like
Westworld. That has its advantages too:

   - Of course, the player is not wearing any gear, which will improve the
   reality of the experience. They can touch their faces and ears.
   - Superb rendering and matching are not needed, nor the light field or
   anything else. You just need your robots to get past the uncanny valley
   - You can use real settings (like a remote landscape for a western)
   though you may have a few anachronisms. (Planes flying overhead, houses in
   the distance.)
   - The same transmitted power and laser tricks could work for the robots,
   but transmitting enough power to power a horse is a great deal more than
   enough to power a headset. All this must be kept fully hidden.

The latter experience will be made too, but it will be more static and cost
a lot more money.
Yes, there will be sex

*Warning: We’re going to get a bit squicky here for some folks.*

Westworld is on HBO, so of course there is sex, though mostly just a more
advanced vision of the classic sex robot idea. I think that VR will change
sex much sooner. In fact, there is already a small VR porn industry, and
even some primitive haptic devices which tie into what’s going on in the
porn. I have not tried them but do not imagine them to be very
sophisticated as yet, but that will change. Indeed, it will change to the
point where porn of this sort becomes a substitute for prostitution, with
some strong advantages over the real thing (including, of course, the
questions of legality and exploitation of humans.)

There are already video recording techniques to record human actors in more
than 3D — they are recorded from multiple angles so you can move your head
and see proper parallax. This will be combined with a simpler “sex robot”
which does a decent job of feeling like a person — with warmth and skin
textures and more — but doesn’t look like a human at all. Looking human is
the job of the video and the actors, real or synthetic. What matters is
that the robot touches you in a way to match the scene, and that you don’t
move so much that you break this illusion. As such, we’ll first see scripts
where the subject stays fairly still, moving only his or her head and
perhaps arms, and then advance to more limited movement.

Past history suggests people are quite willing to suspend disbelief in
these situations, and stick within the rules to play out their fantasies.
Later, the range of what is possible will expand. People will know it’s not
real (as they hopefully know the prostitute doesn’t actually have feelings
for them) but immerse themselves in the fantasy world. The initial
technology might be expensive, suggesting the creation of “VR brothels”
where people (let’s face it, primarily men) go to rent a booth, but
eventually it could become cheap enough for private ownership.

This leads to a number of interesting social consequences. This technology
might well reduce the demand for prostitution, which most people think is a
positive thing. Prostitution is one of the leading drivers of demand for
modern human slavery. (Slavery has not gone away. In fact, in absolute
numbers, there are reportedly more slaves in captivity today than there
were in the early 1800s at the height of the classic slave trade period.)

More controversial will be the potential to offer disturbing fantasies.
Violent sex and sex with minors. These controversies exist already in the
more basic world of porn. Some push to ban even simulations of these acts.
Others believe that offering simulated experiences may replace the demand
for the vastly more pernicious real experiences. There will also
unfortunately be demand for VR video of real, not simulated, child sexual

It will also be possible to create remote experiences, where a remote sex
worker interacts with the customer in live VR, just as is done over
videoconferencing today. (Indeed it was 40 years ago that my friend Ted
Nelson coined the term teledildonics
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/teledildonics> to refer to these types of
interactions, both with sex workers and between couples.) In fact, live
streaming VR experiences — sexual and otherwise — may be one of the largest
drivers of bandwidth demand in the coming decade. It will become possible
in time to alter the experience of the remote person. This might allow a 50
year old woman or man to play a 20 year old woman. And, controversially, it
could also allow them to play an underage person.

The world will have much to debate, and hopefully the extreme issues will
be a small minority market and not cloud discussion of the bigger picture.
Even the existence of relatively tame porn has always been controversial.
The latest issue revolves on whether the vastly higher availability of porn
for teen boys is clouding their impressions of what women are or should be
like and “raising the bar” in a bad way, reducing their ability to be
satisfied with their non-fantasy partners. This will be multiplied by VR
and VR/robot offerings, though in the early days when it is expensive it
will not be readily available to teens. We will also see uses that are more
healthy, including interaction between distant partners, or even for
couples who are physically together who want to do a bit of consensual

A brave new world, is coming, folks.
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