Fans of Star Trek know all about “The Nexus.” A gigantic energy ribbon in space that swallows up ships, planets, and stars, entrapping anyone within transporter range in a dream-like oasis where every fantasy they could dream of came true. It was pure heaven for everyone trapped there.
While trapped in a 19th century Anglo-Saxon fever dream world where his loving wife and dutiful children showered him with praise on Christmas Eve, Jean Luc couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he didn’t belong there.
Because he didn’t.
Fighting the feeling to remain in the Nexus, Picard wrestled his way out of a phenomenon just about everyone else so desperately wanted to stay in.
Could the Nexus actually exist for us? Some would say it’s already here – or at least very close, and AI and Virtual Reality are going to make it happen.
The other day I saw a very captivating video on Instagram. It goes like this: Tom Cruise sits on a park bench, his frame and face are familiar, but his clothing, the surroundings, horizon, even the bench he sits on is… strange, fluid, constantly changing and morphing.
He stands up and transforms into Mark Wahlberg as he struts his stuff down the street. Another soft morph and he’s Tom Hanks.
Now he’s Ryan Reynolds, skipping to a non-existent tune as the scene all around him moves, flows, changes, and morphs – as if a Van Gogh painting sprung to life and enveloped the world around him.
Just like a dream.
Actually, exactly like most of my dreams. Not that Tom and Marky Mark take center stage in my night movies, but the reality-bending fluidity of color and scenery, along with the ever-shifting content from one unconscious thought to the next is precisely how all our dreams unfold every night.
But this is no dream. I’m watching this fluid painting take place on my phone, generated by one of the newest artificial intelligence tools for creating videos. And it hits me…
AI is a tool to connect us with our subconscious. Or more accurately, AI (along with Virtual Reality technologies) is bringing us closer to experiencing dream-like states in our waking consciousness.
Distorted, but Captivating Reality
So how have we escaped the harsh conditions of adulting in the past? We’ve gone on trips, gone to church, and done drugs. But more recently, escapism has been provided on screens that have grown perilously smaller, just like our perspectives.
In my earlier days I hosted several TV shows, mostly on the topic of the future where new inventions and ideas would one day benefit mankind with technology.
At the time I got into hosting, reality shows were brand new. Survivor had just taken off and a wide swath of Americans were enthralled with the premise: stranded people working against each other, using any means necessary, to ascend to the top of the tribe while voting others off, eliminating the competition.
This was a scenario I predicted fifteen years earlier when a coffee commercial was the first to use a ‘cinema verité’ camera style, mirroring the emerging personal video camera craze. My first thought was, “Great, now anyone with a camera can make entertainment, this will not go well.”
Reality TV was ushered in a decade and a half later, and we haven’t been the same since.
Why am I slamming Reality TV in a post about AI and dreams? I’m glad you asked.
Hyper Reality – the decision to disengage
Because real reality has become far too much for Americans to deal with. The instant connection afforded us by our devices has tapped into the extra brain power we have and seems to have set us on a caffeine buzz that we really don’t have the capacity to control.
You’ve heard we use only 10% of our brains? I’m starting to think that’s for a reason. At any given time, 2 billion bits of information are entering our senses. We can only process about 137 at a time. So where does the rest go?
Often, patients suffering from schizophrenia have been evaluated and many of the results mimic what a person on acid might encounter, a widening of the aperture our data intake that is kept narrowly open to allow us to process all the information coming at us.
So, it seems to me that, while technology will continue to over stimulate us, and kids today are somehow able to handle it, the fact is we really can’t handle it, and our brains are begging for a break like an office worker who hasn’t had a vacation in two years.
Dreams, which many of us don’t seem to have enough of anymore because of terrible sleeping patterns, allow us the opportunity to process the excess information we received the previous day, organize it, and store it in either long term memory, or get rid of it.
The brain does one thing really well – it takes those billions of bits of information we receive every minute and deletes, distorts, and generalizes that information to make the world small enough for us to be able to live in it without overloading.
Therefore, the reality we live in is a complex set of cherry-picked data, originating from the fact that each of us filters out massive amounts of incoming bits of information. And we all do it differently. Thus, two people can see the exact same scenario and form widely different perspectives.
It’s how politically, two people can see the exact same candidate and either hate or love them, despite the exact same information being emitted from the person in question.
What we choose to see gives us our reality.
Here’s the rub: With modern information streams being attuned to our already tiny apertures, we’ve gotten so good at solidifying our perspectives that we’ve lost the art of compromise and communication, so hunkering in our bunkers is a solid way to retreat. We shut out what we don’t want to see and refuse to entertain another perspective. And it’s getting worse.
Enter Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality.
I can hear the siren call of AI pulling us into a waking sleep where we can escape the daily over-stimulation of information and confrontation. The balm, the relaxer, the escape. For those of us old enough to remember when all it took was a Calgon bath, today’s escape mechanisms have never been more elaborate or more needed.
A Nexus for the rest of us.
The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of – immersion and surrealism.
VR has been around for a while and it’s really quite something when you experience it. I’ve flown like an eagle over New York City and once I let my mind fully embrace the moment, it really felt like I was there, wings spread, looking down on Broadway and 42nd St.
Now, imagine that, but also without you having to conjure or control the scene, it just takes you over. You could get lost in a world that responds to your unconscious needs and feeds that world back to you. At what point will we lose our ability to discern reality from non-reality.
Some would say we’re there now.
Here’s how AI could push us over the edge into a state where dreams are not enough for us anymore, only an immersive AI / VR world is the world we will accept.
Dreams connect us to our subconscious, the part of our psyches that we truly don’t seem to understand, know, or have any tangible control over – especially during sleep – and give us some understanding of the world.
Artificial Intelligence programs are built to create algorithms based on datasets, which is analogous to the way our minds absorb experiences and create dream scenarios.
In 2021, an internationally known artist by the name of Maya, programmed her AI collaborator to create images inspired by the recollections of her dreams. In one instance, the resemblance to Maya’s actual experience and feelings around a particular vision were so accurate, she was overwhelmed with emotion.
In this stunning example of Artificial Intelligence being able to recreate the intimate symbolism of a dreamer, one might think AI to have a window into the human soul.
Or it was a lucky guess based on good prompting.
The larger issue in my mind is the question of access. For those thinking AI is going to rise up and ‘terminate’ us all, I have a darker, more simple fear: that we will walk like lemmings into the safe, predictable cocoon of an AI assisted dream state willingly without the ability or the desire to leave.
As technology continues to help blur the lines of reality, the very real possibility of addiction to this new fantasy world is frighteningly real. How can this be a good thing for our mental health?
Think of it like Oxycontin. At first this too-good-to-be-true, non-addictive, highly available miracle medication seemed the escape from pain we were all looking for. Until it created dope sick addicts unable to break free from their very legal, highly recommended remedy, some of whom will never be the same, others who died as a result of overdose or suicide.
If life is so hard that we must escape it through drugs, denial, online chatrooms, or virtual reality, then our problem isn’t the solution we’re seeking, it’s the reason we’re seeking it.
Upon learning from Captain Picard that he was actually stuck for the past 80 years in the Nexus, a fantasy world where nothing was real, Captain Kirk understood that his true place was back out in the universe, part of the real world and making a difference.
So, he left the Nexus with Picard and ten minutes later died unceremoniously on some rocks on Veridian 3.
Yeah, maybe life is too hard.