Playing God

There’s a lot of talk about virtual environments these days, largely due to the proliferation of online roleplaying games. The futurists (myself included) see a harbinger of new worlds being created, ouside the ‘meatspace’ of reality, but just as alive. And that dream is one step closer, it would seem. The online environment Second Life offers its users the opportunity to play with their world down to the smallest level. In her spare hours between raising a child, one user has been quite literally playing god as a pastime.

Laukosargas Svarog, a former music industry employee and games developer, has spent the last year creating a fully operating ecosystem on her virtual island in Second Life. There are clouds, moved by the wind, that bring rain. There are plants, that need the rain and the (cloud-modulated) sunlight to grow. There are bees to pollinate the plants. She even reports ’emergent’ patterns of behaviour, one of the tell-tale signs that artificial life boffins look for in systems; some plants proliferate, some die off. It’s a real (albeit simplified) working ecology that even requires virtual gardening to keep it in check.

So, why should you care? It’s just a game, right? Well, yes, it is at the moment. But it is (as far as I am concerned) a sign of things to come; of virtual environments that don’t have to be programmed centimeter for centimeter to look real, but that can be extrapolated from a set of rules. Svarog has created basic ‘genomes’ for her plants, so that a certain degree of natural selection can occur. With the inevitably faster  and more powerful computers of the future, similar systems will be able to be far more complex, edging closer and closer to the complexity we see in the real world around us.

Barring unmitigated natural catastrophe, human futures are going to be increasing involved with (and immersed in) virtual environments like Second Life. If the Singularity comes, some of us may spend almost our entire concious time in them. The fact that a hobbyist, albeit one with good programming skills, can create a simple but functional simulation of nature in this manner means that there is a definite prospect for us having virtual worlds that mimic the real world very closely. Or at least mimic its complexity – once the secret to building an ecosystem is cracked, we could build unreal worlds that are perfect in their own way, everything fitting together in harmony with the smoothness that Creationists tell us only God could produce.

And as a science fiction freak, futurist and general dreamer, that is an awesome thought to contemplate.

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