August 13, 2006

MMORPG : The Maya of Vedanta

Massively Multi-user Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) are something that I have been writing about extensively in my other blog the-Imagineer. However the posts in that blog address the technological and economic aspects of this emerging phenomenon. Here I wish to explore the philosophical implications.

But before I attempt to link MMORPGs to Vedanta, let me state clearly upfront that I am not one of those who believe, and try to convince everyone else, that all technology that we see today was known and available to ancient Hindu society. While I am not a pseudo-secularist who revels in trashing each and every aspect of Hindu civilisation, I am also equally sceptical of wild claims about the usage of airplanes in the Ramayana and of nuclear missiles in the Mahabharata. And in particular I have no love lost for Vedic mathematics ... that collection of simple formulae and mathematical shortcuts that have been erroneously compared to the wonders of Euclid and Pythagoras.

What I do have a lot of respect for is the philosophy (darshana -- that which has been seen, by adepts) of the Upanishads in general and its crown jewel (the ChudaMani) Advaita Vedanta -- as elaborated by Sankar -- whose insight, erudition and passionate embrace of the truth is unparalleled in the annals of human history.

Advaita Vedanta is too vast to describe in a single post but the curious may look up my thoughts on Singularity -- the non-dual, which is what Advaita means.

One of the key concepts of Advaita Vedanta is that of Maya, the illusion. Vedanta asserts that the world is an illusion and he who understands this -- at an intuitive level -- realises the unity of the apparent duality of (a) the Creator and (b) the Creation -- or the duality of (a) the Knower and (b) the To-be-Known. In fact enlightenment consists of the convergence of these duals into the Singularity of Advaita or non-duality.

Coming back to Maya, we realise that it is very difficult for us to accept that the sensual world, the world that is accessible to us through our five (six ?) sense organs, does not exist. How can it be that things that we can see and touch are not real but figments of our imagination.

Matrix, the movie, is the first example of how this could be so and you can look up my article on Vedanta@Hollywood on this topic. However, Matrix was fiction, science fiction but MMORPGs suffer no such handicap. MMORPGs are here and now and very, very "real" !

The world of any reasonable MMORPG is certainly not "real" in the traditional sense. Everything inside an MMORPG -- both the physical environment as well as the 'avatars' that operate inside are digital simulations ... created through a computer program and operated by 'external' sentient entities -- the human players.

But inside the MMORPG the sense of 'reality' is immense and with advances of technology, current technology not sci-fiction, the sense of reality is increasing by leaps and bounds. In SecondLife -- the most sophisticated MMORPG at the moment -- the sense of reality is incredible.

What makes SecondLife so different from other MMORPGs is its support for User Generated Content -- users can create artefacts, houses, balls, animals, puppets ... and using the Linden Scripting Language enhance them with 'behaviours'. For example a parrot can kiss you or bite someone ( or his 'avatar') if touched ! Obviously the more scripting you do, the more sophisticated your artefact can become.

And since these artefacts are persistent, the creator need not be logged on to operate his creation ... they could operate on their own like any other well known 'bot' or robot.

This is where the border between the 'reality' of the external, physical world and the 'illusion' of the digital, cyber world begins to blur. Looking ahead we can visualise a programmatic world of 'bots' inhabiting the illusory world of the MMORPG ... and then looking inside us .. it makes me wonder whether the reality of the external world, that we human beings inhabit, is in indeed a fact ..is it really 'real'?

Before I had entered an MMORPG (like Planeshift or SecondLife) I was very sure ... but now my confidence has been weakened. Am I another 'avatar' being operated by some other sentient entity outside this world ?

Is this a recursive ? Just as I could create an 'avatar' within Planeshift or SecondLife .. am I an 'avatar' created inside what we believe is this real world.

Through my avatar, I can create a quasi-intelligent artefact, that exhibits some kind of behaviour. Can I extend this ability to create and end up creating a third virtual world inside the MMORPG .. a third world where my avatar, if he is 'intelligent' enough, can log in and play ThirdLife ? And if that be so ... then how am i sure that my so-called 'real' life is indeed the FirstLife that I believe it is ...

Of course we understand and appreciate programming avatars and 'bots' to be intelligent is a non-trivial problem and one that researchers on AI have been breaking their heads against since the 1960s. But assuming that this problem can be tackled -- see my thoughts on how this could be attempted -- we see no difficulty in envisioning an entire range of worlds where the one that we currently know is called the "Nth life" and a 'normal' MMORPG is "N+1th life"

For the time being N = 1, we believe we are in FirstLife and we are playing SecondLife (N+1 = 2). However whether that is really so ... is something that is known only to he who is a true adept at Advaita Vedanta.

Let me conclude with a story that is popular with Zen Buddhists. There was monk who fell asleep under a tree and had a very vivid dream. He dreamt that he was a butterfly and was flying around the tree. When the monk woke up he was very confused ... and wondered -- "Am man who had been dreaming that he was a butterfly ? Or am I a butterfly who is currently dreaming that I am a man ?"

Is it possible for an avatar to ask similar questions if he has been programmed to do so ? And finally ... have I been programmed by someone else to ask this question through this blog ?

The answer will perhaps be known to those who have have achieved the Singularity of Advaita Vedanta.

The Red Flag Law : From England to India

All students and enthusiasts of the History of the Motor Car are aware of the Red Flag law that was in effect in England in the closing years of the 19th century.

This was the time when engineers were making the first hesitant attempts to put a steam engine on a horse carriage to see if they could make a self-propelled vehicle that was both light enough to move and yet safe enough for the passengers ... and there were many ideas that were explored. Engineers in England, as well as in France, Germany and other industrialised nations were carrying out various experiments to study different options ... with different degrees of technical and commercial success.

But England was the only country where the legislature -- that is Parliament -- had unilaterally and ignorantly mandated that self-propelled vehicles were a danger to the population and hence should they venture out on public roads, they had to be preceded by a man, walking in front, with a red flag.

This arbitrary piece of legislation was guided less by actual concerns of safety and more by the lobby that had emerged to protect and preserve the fortunes of those who made a living out of horses and horse-drawn carriages. This included companies that built and operated horse-drawn carriages ( which were the dominant modes of transportation ) plus the entire industry centred around horses -- those who sold horse feed, those who looked after horses and the like.

This strange and retrograde Red Flag law could not stop the evolution of the automobile industry but it did leave the British motor industry with a very significant handicap ... as European car makers could move forward and establish themselves at the expense of the British.

The law has ofcourse been repealed long ago but it is still held up as a prime example of how irrational and mischivous legislation can and does have a negative impact on the growth of an important industry.

.... That was then, how is this relevent today and in India ?

The left parties in India's parliament are the equivalent of the Red Flag law in India today. When entrepreneurs in this country are at last breaking free from the colonial past and trimming their sails to catch the winds of globalisation ... we have the equivalent of theRed Flag law to hinder and impede progress.

Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation (LPG) in inevitable ... as inevitable as the automobile has proved to be .... and yet our left parties want to have the equivalent of the Red Flag law ... to slow down its progress.

The purported concerns are similar ... it is said that the LPG is too dangerous to be let loose on the illiterate and unsuspecting population of India ... just as self-propelled vehicles were too dangerous for the population of England in the 19th century.

The real reasons are of course far too malefic ... should LPG progress at the pace that it should, it would make life very difficult for a whole slew of people ... the crony capitalists who have been sucking the nation dry and the malevolent trade unions who enjoy unbridled power at the expense of both the worker as well as the population at large.

Hence we have to suffer the modern version of the Red Flag law as the nation tries to take the highway to productivity and prosperity.

In 19th century England, the Red Flag law surely must have been debated and discussed in Parliament and in the press ... but today we know it for what it was .. a worthless piece of legislation that crippled the British motor industry.

Today ... we discuss and debate LPG in Parliament and in the press -- both physical as well as digitial -- but we know that fifty years from now, the jury will be out and we would know that this debate about the progress of LPG reforms was all hogwash.

But industry and entrepreneurship in India would have been dealt a crippling blow from which it would take years to recover.

Such is the power of our so-called Democracy.

August 02, 2006

SecondLife : the next.www.com

Is SecondLife a pre-cursor to a new version of the world wide web ? Let us take a close look at how SecondLife is very similar ( or dissimilar ) to the web in general.

The web is one of the many applications ( like chat, smtp-mail, ftp ) that runs on the IP infrastructure of the internet. Of course it is the most popular application. SL is also another application complete with a client and a server.

The web consists of websites ( or groups of websites ) that individuals build and hope to draw traffic to. SL consists of islands, regions and individual 'properties' that people build and hope to draw traffic to.

On a website, you can do various things .. make it 'beautiful', both visually as well as with music etc, to increase its attractiveness. You can also enable your website to hold chat sessions, or enable it with eCommerce to transact business.

Properties and regions on SL can also traverse the same path. They can initially be simply 'beautiful' places to be in .. but they can be (and are being ) enhanced to support commercial transactions.

Going forward, I forsee a vast variety of regions, some simply beautiful, some for fun, some for education and some for commerce ... that I can visit through the SL client.

Is this not similar to the America Online Service ( precursor to the web ) where you could use a proprietory browser to access a range of services ?

Which brings me to the point of dis-similarity of the with the web. The web is based on an open architecture. You can use ANY browser to access a website created by ANY individual, on ANY server ... as long as both adhere to the http protocol.

On SL you have to use ONLY the SL client ( the SL 'browser') to browse regions created ONLY on the SL server, and that too ONLY by SL subscribers.

Perhaps this is how things start ... if we use AOL as an analogy, but going forward is it possible to define an open architecture of a generic MMORPG client that can access any MMORPG server using some other yet to be defined protocal ( similar to http ).

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