The other day we celebrated my youngest son’s 21st birthday. As is customary for me, the speech was written in my head while out for a run. My family jokes about both the fact that I write speeches years before they are actually needed, and also the fact that I have a tendency towards getting all emotional when giving said speeches.
The thought of emotionality and running got me thinking about a conversation I had recently with a buddy of mine. Said individual is probably New Zealand’s leading commentator on Artificial Intelligence. He’s been talking about it for years and regularly gets asked to give talks around the world about exactly what impact AI will have. Ironically, in a world where ChatGPT and other AI tools can produce compelling content almost instantaneously, my buddy has the gravitas that a machine can’t (yet) replace. Emojis and all.
Anyway, when it comes to the impacts that AI will have on society, he really isn’t shy. He’s a firm believer that AI changes (or will do so in the near future) everything and will render vast swathes of the workforce unemployed, destroy entire sectors, and generally cause a revolution of epic proportions. Like I said, he gets pretty fired up about this stuff.
As we were chatting, he was talking about the latest releases of the various virtual reality headsets and how incredibly immersive VR experiences are. He extrapolated out a few years and was adamant that the experience available to us in the virtual world would be completely indistinguishable from that in the physical world – when total cross-sense immersion occurs, the robotic experience will utterly clone the real one.
And this is where he and I differed. And it’s all related to me and my running experience.
I try and run 100km or so a week – running is both my therapy and my exercise, My connection and disconnection. I never wear earbuds when running, and almost never take my phone with me. Running is, for me, an opportunity to totally immerse myself in my environment and listen to nothing but the ambient noises, the feeling of my heart beating and the rhythmic pattern of my shoes on the asphalt or dirt.
And it’s this total immersion thing that really pushes my buttons. There’s something that happens when I’m running – some call it flow, some suggest it’s a Zen state, others call it the endorphin high. The experience moves beyond the physical senses and becomes a spiritual thing. Believe me, I’m no crazy hippie who sees God out there on my runs, I’m no touchie-feelie wierdo, but there is something that goes on beyond the mere physical senses.
As I said to him (and, while I’d had a couple of wines, I’m fairly certain that I was sober) it’s analogous to the feeling of love. When we fall in love with a person, it is beyond the look and feel of that individual and occupies some other space. Some say it’s the heart, although my anatomy and physiology knowledge would question that. Others say it is in the deepest recesses of the brain where emotions are formed and encoded. Wherever it is, it goes beyond what we can sense and is something far deeper.
Ironically, said conversation partner is a fan of putting on a pack and heading to the hills for a few days of solo hiking. He, I’m assuming, loves the combination of clear air, beautiful views, birdsong and isolation to recharge the batteries. I asked him what his feelings would be when he could experience all of those sensations – sight, sound, smell – via alternative reality. When he can sit on a chair, strap on a headset (with the added option of smell-o-vision) and have a complete replica of that experience.
At this point, we got sidetracked by a very nice red wine and some very tasty canapes. But I was definitely left thinking that, despite the protestations of Mark Zuckerberg and his merry band of Metaverse proponents, there’s hope still left for the physical world. I’m sure in my lifetime I’ll be able to download my brain onto a USB key and live as a digital clone, but I reckon there’s a lot of stuff that would be lost in the process. Emotional speeches being one of them.