Futurist Ernest Cline on Driverless Cars and VR Sex
Virtual reality is now a thing. And some, including Facebook employee Palmer Luckey (who convinced Mark Zuckerberg to buy his Oculus VR company for $2 billion in 2014), look at author Ernest Cline as a futurist.
Cline’s debut bestseller, Ready Player One, focused on a virtual reality utopia called the Oasis. And while the 2011 novel was set in 2044, many of the foundations of this future are already a reality. The paperback version of Cline’s second bestselling book, Armada, is out now. That sci-fi adventure also involves virtual reality, but as a way to pilot spacecraft through a massively multiplayer online game that turns out to be a real-life battle against invading aliens.
If you haven’t read the books (which are great reads, especially if you’re into video games and “geek” culture), Steven Spielberg is directing the Ready Player One feature film and Universal Pictures has optioned Armada for the big screen.
We couldn’t think of anyone better to serve as our tech oracle.
THE RED BULLETIN: Ready Player One is required reading at Oculus VR and a lot of the things you wrote about in the book are now a reality with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and the upcoming PlayStation VR.
ERNEST CLINE: Well, I don’t take any credit for that. Palmer Luckey had already started his Kickstarter campaign for the prototype of the Oculus Rift right when my book was published. And then everybody started to recommend the book to him and then he enjoyed it so much and saw how it showed a lot of applications in VR that he had been imagining that he started to recommend it to everybody who came to work at Oculus Rift. But the technology finally caught up with the idea of virtual reality. I remember being promised virtual reality as far back as the ‘80s or early ‘90s playing early VR arcade games like Dactyl Nightmare, where you had a heavy unwieldy VR helmet that you put on and used a laser tag gun hat you could use to shoot things inside the virtual world. But the latency was so bad that it would make you sick.
It seems like they’ve been working on this problem since the ‘80s and a lot of people, including me, when I was writing Ready Player One, had been expecting virtual reality to happen. But it hadn’t happened. Then it seemed like it started to happen right around the time that my book was published, but I don’t know how much one had to do with the other.
Armada focuses on player-controlled long-distance drone battles against aliens. A lot of sci-fi involves artificial intelligence taking over the world. Do you think it will?
AI is something that everybody’s been working on forever, and that’s still seen as pretty far away to me. I know that making a computer that can think as well and improvise like a human still seems tricky. There was that Go competition recently where the Japanese Go champion went against the super computer and it beat him on the first game, but then he came back and beat it in the second and third game. People have been arguing about this since the first time a computer beat a chess master, but the thing about a computer is teaching it to improvise.
My friend Daniel H. Wilson, who wrote Robopocalypse and has written a bunch of sequels to it, is more interested in writing about AI and the way assistance robots or even self-driving cars could be transformed into a collective artificial intelligence to try to wipe out humanity. But that, isn’t interesting to me. We have so many more other problems facing us that it seems like we’ll be lucky if we get to the point where we have to worry about that.
I also like the positive applications of artificial intelligence, and also virtual reality. The benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks. Anything that’s good or entertaining – there are many people who overdo it – but it also is going to allow people to visit with their family members who are in completely different sides of the planet, and also allow scientists and artists and creative people to communicate and collaborate with each other inside a virtual space. That’s all really exciting to me.
Owning a DeLorean, you like the feel of driving. Do you think driverless cars will catch on like we’re seeing VR start to catch on?
Yeah. It’s already happening. It’s crazy. I just saw on Reddit that automated self-driving trucks are coming and it’s going to erase hundreds of thousands of jobs and be safer because those drivers never fall asleep at the wheel, or have to take amphetamines to stay awake for 24 hours at a time. I’ve already seen those reaction videos of people trying out the self-driving Teslas that use sensors. It stills seems like that would be nerve-racking at the stage that it is now because you keep paying attention in case the car needs you to take over at any moment. It would almost be easier just to drive the whole thing yourself. But once things are changed to make the road system match up with the way the self-driving cars work, I think that would be great.
My DeLorean actually is the protagonist’s car in Ready Player One that I recreated – Ecto88 –which is part Back to the Future time machine, part Ghostbusters, part Buckaroo Bonzai, and part KITT from Knight Rider. If it actually worked, it would be a self-driving DeLorean with KITT, which has been the fantasy of everybody since seeing Knight Rider. There’s all these episodes where Michael Knight is taking a nap while KITT is driving for him or he’s playing video games on one of KITT’s screens. I’ve been imagining having a self-driving car ever since watching that show in the early ‘80s. And there are already car companies patenting moving entertainment systems that project onto your windshield. That would just be amazing to get into a car with your family and you’ve got like an eight hour drive to make, but you’re all going to be playing video games or watching a movie together or browsing the Internet or reading. It all seems like a great benefit.
We’ve already seen the adult entertainment industry jump onto the virtual reality bandwagon. Will VR sex be better than actual sex?
There’s a little chapter about that in Ready Player One, where the main character gets obsessed with the contest in the virtual world, but also closes himself off from reality. He rents an apartment and paints the windows black and focuses entirely on life inside the virtual world. And part of that – he’s an 18 year old character and he’s still a virgin – is VR sex because of the haptic software – which has already been made now in real life with haptic devices that you can put on your genitals that can be manipulated by other people remotely or manipulated by a software programs.
That’s the thing that’s fascinating to me about how every step of the way human technology, especially any form of media technology, immediately applied to pornography. As soon as there was photography, they were using it to make pornography. As soon as there was video, it was used to make pornography. And now with virtual reality. I saw PornHub immediately created a whole 360 video channel.
We’re seeing companies like Google and Facebook attempting to get Internet to the entire world. Do you see technology playing a role in helping the 99 percent eventually overthrow the 1 percent like we’ve seen in sci-fi movies like V for Vendetta?
It’s already played a huge role over the past 20 years. It’s used on both sides as a surveillance tool, but also as a communication tool. So many laws and so many injustices have been exposed all around the world because of the Internet. It doesn’t matter what side of what border you’re on, if you can get unrestricted access to the Internet you can share audio and video and still images and your own words and the experience of the situation that you’re living in. That’s already demonstratively affected policy in counties all around the world.
I’m still shocked that the US government and the British government were watching their own people and nobody seemed to care about that. Some people cared deeply, but a lot of people were fine with it. It will be interesting to see how VR effects this. If everybody has this little world that they can escape to that’s better than the real world, where they can have anything they want and be gods and heroes, then how much interest are they going to have in what’s going on in the real world? It could almost give governments and people in power more power because fewer people are paying attention to what’s really going on.