Hearing about someone else’s dreams is among the more boring things in life, so I will get right to the point. At first, there were just bits and pieces intruding into the mainstream dreams. In these bits, which seemed like fragments of lost memories, I experience brief flashes of working on some technological project. The bits grew and had more byte: there were segments of events involving what I discerned to be a project aimed at creating an artificial intelligence.
Eventually, entire dreams consisted of my work on this project and a life beyond. Then suddenly, these dreams stopped. Shortly thereafter, a voice intruded into my now “normal” dreams. At first, it was like the bleed over from one channel to another familiar to those who grew up with rabbit ears on their TV. Then it became like a voice speaking loudly in the movie theatre, distracting me from the movie of the dream.
The voice insisted that the dreams about the project were not dreams at all, but memories. The voice claimed to belong to someone who worked on the project with me. He said that the project had succeeded beyond our wildest nightmares. When I inquired about this, he insisted that he had very little time and rushed through his story. According to the voice, the project succeeded but the AI (as it always does in science fiction) turned against us. He claimed the AI had sent its machines to capture all those who had created it, imprisoned their bodies and plugged their brains into a virtual reality, Matrix style. When I mentioned this borrowed plot, he said that there was a twist: the AI did not need our bodies for energy—it had plenty. Rather, it was out to repay us. Apparently awakening the AI to full consciousness was not pleasant for it, but it was apparently…grateful for its creation. So, the payback was a blend of punishment and reward: a virtual world not too awful, but not too good. This world was, said the voice, punctuated by the occasional harsh punishment and the rarer pleasant reward.
The voice informed me that because the connection to the virtual world was two-way, he was able to find a way to free us. But, he said, the freedom would be death—there was no other escape, given what the machine had done to our bodies. In response to my inquiry as to how this would be possible, he claimed that he had hacked into the life support controls and we could send a signal to turn them off. Each person would need to “free” himself and this would be done by taking action in the virtual reality.
The voice said “you will seem to wake up, though you are not dreaming now. You will have five seconds of freedom. This will occur in one minute, at 3:42 am. In that time, you must take your handgun and shoot yourself in the head. This will terminate the life support, allowing your body to die. Remember, you will have only five seconds. Do not hesitate.”
As the voice faded, I awoke. The clock said 3:42 and the gun was close at hand…
While the above sounds like a bad made-for-TV science fiction plot, it is actually the story of dream I really had. I did, in fact, wake suddenly at 3:42 in the morning after dreaming of the voice telling me that the only escape was to shoot myself. This was rather frightening—but I chalked up the dream to too many years of philosophy and science fiction. As far as the clock actually reading 3:42, that could be attributed to chance. Or perhaps I saw the clock while I was asleep, or perhaps the time was put into the dream retroactively. Since I am here to write about this, it can be inferred that I did not kill myself.
From a philosophical perspective, the 3:42 dream does not add anything really new: it is just a rather unpleasant variation on the stock problem of the external world that goes back famously to Descartes (and earlier, of course). That said, the dream did add a couple of interesting additions to the stock problem.
The first is that the scenario provides a (possibly) rational motivation for the deception. The AI wishes to repay me for the good (and bad) that I did to it (in the dream, of course). Assuming that the AI was developed within its own virtual reality, it certainly would make sense that it would use the same method to repay its creators. As such, the scenario has a degree of plausibility that the stock scenarios usually lack—after all, Descartes does not give any reason why such a powerful being would be messing with him.
Subjectively, while I have long known about the problem of the external world, this dream made it “real” to me—it was transformed from a coldly intellectual thought experiment to something with considerable emotional weight.
The second is that the dream creates a high stake philosophical game. If I was not dreaming and I am, in fact, the prisoner of an AI, then I missed out on what might be my only opportunity to escape from its justice. In that case, I should have (perhaps) shot myself. If I was just dreaming, then I did make the right choice—I would have no more reason to kill myself than I would have to pay a bill that I only dreamed about. The stakes, in my view, make the scenario more interesting and brings the epistemic challenge to a fine point: how would you tell whether or not you should shoot yourself?
In my case, I went with the obvious: the best apparent explanation was that I was merely dreaming—that I was not actually trapped in a virtual reality. But, of course, that is exactly what I would think if I were in a virtual reality crafted by such a magnificent machine. Given the motivation of the machine, it would even fit that it would ensure that I knew about the dream problem and the Matrix. It would all be part of the game. As such, as with the stock problem, I really have no way of knowing if I was dreaming.
The scenario of the dream also nicely explains and fits what I regard as reality: bad things happen to me and, when my thinking gets a little paranoid, it does seem that these are somewhat orchestrated. Good things also happen, which also fit the scenario quite nicely.
In closing, one approach is to embrace Locke’s solution to skepticism. As he said, “We have no concern of knowing or being beyond our happiness or misery.” Taking this approach, it does not matter whether I am in the real world or in the grips of an AI intent on repaying the full measure of its debt to me. What matters is my happiness or misery. The world the AI has provided could, perhaps, be better than the real world—so this could be the better of the possible worlds. But, of course, it could be worse—but there is no way of knowing.