Virtual reality environments and MMORPGs are giving us the first clue that this may be a problem. Take Second Life, for example, which is already experiencing a number of strange anomalies and issues. In the past year SL users have had to deal with CopyBot, CampBots, SheepBots, grey goo, and alt instances.
Each of these are headaches unto themselves, and possible harbingers of more severe problems to come.
CopyBot was originally created as a debugging tool by the SL development team and was intended for functions like import/export and backing up data. But as is so often the case with technology, it was twisted and used for an entirely different purpose altogether. Some opportunistic Second Lifers used CopyBot to duplicate items that were marked no copy by the creator or owner, thus violating intellectual property rights. To date, attempts to counter CopyBot have included anti-CopyBot spamming defeaters, which have in turn given rise to anti-anti-CopyBot defeaters. Call it an algorithmic arms race.
While this hints at post-scarcity and open source, it is still unclear how unbridled duplication will offer users the incentive to create original artifacts for the SL environment.
CampBots and SheepBots aren't nearly as contentious, but are equally annoying. These are essentially SpamBots working under the guise of an avatar.
And back in October of 2006 users experienced a grey goo scare when a "griefer" (a person who disrupts video-games) attacked Second Life with self-replicating "grey goo" that melted down the SL servers. The griefers used malign scripts that caused objects to spontaneously self-replicate. According to the the transcript of the SL blogs:
4:15pm PST: We are still in the process of investigating the grid-wide griefing attacks, as such we have momentarily disabled scripts and “money transfers to objects” as well on the entire grid. We apologize for this and thank for your patience. As soon as I have more information, I will pass it along.More recently SL users have had to compete with so-called alt instances who launch ultra-fast bots that scoop up valuable land; automated bots work with much greater efficiency than humans. Alt instances are additional avatars controlled by the same user. They do this to capitalize on on the First Land privileges that are extended to newbies. It is estimated that users have on average 1.25 avatars, indicating that there may be as many as 500,000 in-world alts.
4:35pm PST: As part of our effort to counter the recent grey goo attacks, we’re currently doing a rolling restart of the grid to help clean it out, this means each region will be restarted over the course of the next few hours. Thanks again for your patience.
4:55pm PST: There was a slight delay to our rolling restart while we continued our investigation. The rolling restart should begin soon, if you are currently in-world you will get a warning before your region is restarted - allowing you to teleport to another region. We hope to have logins open again very soon. Thanks again for everyone’s patience during this issue.
These bots have created a huge digital scarcity because Second Life has been overwhelmed with the groundswell of new residents. Users have asked that these bots be made illegal and Linden Labs has agreed to look into it.
Our analog, digital and future worlds
As I look at these examples I can't help but think that virtual reality environments are offering a glimpse into our future -- both in the analog and digital arenas. Second Life in particular is a mirror of not just our own society, but of future society itself. In real life we are dealing with the widespread copying of copyrighted material, issues of open source, out of control spam, the threat/promise of automation, molecular fabrication, and of course, the grim possibility of runaway nanotech.
Moreover, an uploaded society would conceivably face more problems in digital substrate than in the cozy confines of the analog world. We can't 'hack' into the code of the Universe (at least not yet). As a consequence our existence is still very much constrained by the laws of physics, access to resources, and the limits of our information systems (i.e. our accumulated body of knowledge). That said, we do a fairly decent job of soft-hacking into the Universe, which is very much the modus operandi of an intelligent species.
But the soft-hacking that we're doing is becoming more and more sophisticated -- something that could lead to over-complexity. We're creating far too many dangerous variables that require constant monitoring and control.
As for the digital realm, it is already complex by default. But like the analog world it too has constraints, though slightly different. Virtual worlds have to deal with limitations imposed by computational power, algorithmic technology and access to information. Aside from that, the sky's the limit. Such computational diversity could lead to complexity an order of magnitude above analog life.
Hackers and criminals would seek to infiltrate and exploit everything under the virtual sun, including conscious minds. Conscious agents would have to compete with automatons. Bots of unimaginable ilk would run rampant. There would be problems of swarming, self-replication and distributed attacks. And even more disturbingly, nothing would be truly secure and the very authenticity of existence would constantly be put into question.
Perhaps there are solutions to these problems, but I'm inclined to doubt it. Natural selection is unkind to overspecialized species. Further, we have no working model of evolution in digital substrate (aside from some primitive simulations).
This is one case where I certainly hope to be proven wrong.