AI vs VR

It is without a doubt that artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are the two heavy weight contenders that are going to battle it out and demonstrate their brilliance to us over the coming years. With applications in almost every walk of life, both have the ability to positively (and negatively) disrupt almost every aspect of our lives.

Fifteen years ago, Steven Spielberg gave us the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence based on a screen play by Ian Watson and the short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Longby Brian Aldiss that was written nearly 50 years ago. I was in my early 20s at the time and remember clearly not really enjoying the film and, if I’m honest, feeling a little confused by the concept. Since then there have been numerous films and programmes that have explored this concept and today our brains are far more receptive to the idea that we will soon be living with AI in our everyday lives.

This year I was invited to a meeting on the use of AI in healthcare. I was extremely excited about being introduced to robots doing cool stuff, but I was disappointed to find that there were none. Instead, I was sat in a basement room surrounded by people with brains I suspected were bigger than my house looking at mathematical equations and simulations. I had more chance of keeping up with Mo Farah than I did any of these. However, despite not understanding mathematics behind the application, the application itself was clear and I quickly realised that AI meant much more than robots. 

I was blown away to find out that computers like ‘Watson’ are able to predict new diseases, and more importantly find possible new treatments, by actively searching for and reading text, and looking at images to establish patterns and trends with astonishing levels of certainty in a very short period of time.

VR was originally a semi-immersible digitally-simulated world that was enough to play tricks on our brain through the ocular pathway but defiantly not confusable with real life. I remember playing tennis on the Atari 2600 (one of the original games consoles of the early 1980s) and the players themselves were only just about identifiable. This is compared with the games consoles of today, such as Forza, which for all intents and purposes, are as real as they can get – sometimes they are so good you can be forgiven for thinking you are watching (or even controlling) a film. 

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The point is, with the advent of VR devices like Oculus Rift and its total immersive experience, coupled with the ability to create digital images confusable with real life (and/or using real life footage itself), VR is showing signs of being an alternative reality. Mark Zuckerberg already has an avatar of himself which is is able to walk around his virtual home and make things happen in his physical home – for example turning on a light in his virtual home makes it happen in his real home. 

It is therefore totally feasible that with the right ‘connected’ machinery a surgeon could perform an operation on a real life patient but from a virtual operating theatre on the other side of the world, overcoming any physical/logistical barriers limiting access to medical experts.

Even in its current basic form VR is achieving astonishing results in the medical field. For example, according to Duke University North Carolina, a combination of motorised exoskeletons and VR could help paraplegics regain some control of paralysed limbs. In their study, paraplegic patients were able to move a soccer player avatar through a stadium in VR by imagining the movements in their own body. For me the bigger question here is not that of whether AI or VR is better, or which will have a bigger impact on our lives. Instead the question is what happens when AI meets VR? 

Chris Knight