In this last in the virtual cheating series, the focus of the discussion is on virtual people. The virtual aspect is easy enough to define—these are entities that exist entirely within the realm of computer memory and do not exist as physical beings in that they lack bodies of the traditional sort. They are, of course, physical beings in the broad sense, existing as data within physical memory systems.
An example of such a virtual being is a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. These coded entities range from enemies that fight the player to characters that engage in the illusion of conversation and interaction. As it now stands, these NPCs are quite simple—although players often have very strong emotional responses and even (one-sided) relationships with them. Bioware, for example, excels at creating NPCs that players get very involved with and their games often feature elaborate relationship and romance systems.
While these simple coded entities are usually designed to look like and imitate the behavior of people, they are obviously not people. They cannot even pass a basic Turning test. They are, at best, the illusion of people. As such, while humans could become emotionally attached to these virtual entities, it would be impossible to cheat with them. Naturally, a human could become angry with how involved their partner is with video games, but that is another matter.
As technology improves, the virtual people will become more and more person-like. As with the robots discussed in the previous essay, if a virtual person were a person, then cheating would be potentially possible. Also as with the discussion of robots, there could be degrees of virtual personhood, thus allowing for degrees of cheating. Since virtual people are essentially robots in the virtual world, the discussion of robots in that essay would apply analogously to the virtual robots of the virtual world. There is, however, one obvious break in the analogy: unlike robots, virtual people lack physical bodies. This leads to the obvious question of whether a human can virtually cheat with a virtual person or if cheating requires a physical sexual component.
While, as discussed in a previous essay, there is a form of virtual sex that involves physical devices that stimulate the sexual organs, this is not “pure” virtual sex. After all, the user is using a VR headset to “look” at the partner, but the stimulation is all done mechanically. Pure virtual sex would require the sci-fi sort of virtual reality of cyberpunk—a person fully “jacked in” to the virtual reality so all the inputs and outputs are essentially directly to and from the brain. The person would have a virtual body in the virtual reality that mediates their interaction with that world, rather than having crude devices stimulating their physical body.
Assuming the technology is good enough, a person could have virtual sex with a virtual person (or another person who is also jacked into the virtual world). On the one hand, this would obviously not be sex in the usual sense—those involved would have no physical contact. This would avoid many of the usual harms of traditional cheating—STDs and pregnancies would not be possible (although sexual malware and virtual babies might be possible). This does, of course, leave open the door for accusations of emotional infidelity.
On the other hand, if the experience is indistinguishable from the experience of physical sex, then it could be argued that the lack of physical contact is irrelevant. At this point, the classic problem of the external world becomes relevant. The gist of this problem is that because I cannot get outside of my experiences to “see” that they are really being caused by external things that seem to be causing them, I can never know if there is really an external world. For all I know, I am dreaming or already in a virtual world. While this is usually seen as the nightmare scenario in epistemology, George Berkeley embraced this view in his idealism—he argued that there is no metaphysical matter and that “to be is to be perceived.” On his view, all that exists are minds and within them are ideas. Crudely put, Berkeley’s reality is virtual and God is the server.
So, if cheating is defined such that it requires physical sexual activity, knowing whether a person is cheating or not would require solving the problem of the external world. And there would be the possibility that there never has been any cheating since there might be no physical world. If sexual activity is defined in terms of the behavior and sensations without references to a need for physical systems, then virtual cheating would be possible—assuming the technology can reach the required level.
While this discussion of virtual cheating is currently purely theoretical, it does provide an interesting way to explore what it is about cheating (if anything) that is wrong. As noted at the start of the series, many of the main concerns about cheating are purely physical concerns about STDs and pregnancy. These concerns are avoided by virtual cheating. What remains are the emotions of those involved and the agreements between them. As a practical matter, the future is likely to see people working out the specifics of their relationships in terms of what sort of virtual and robotic activities are allowed and which are forbidden. While people can simply agree to anything, there is the deeper question of the rational foundation of relationship boundaries. For example, whether it is reasonable to consider interaction with a sexbot cheating or elaborate masturbation. Perhaps Bill Clinton, with his inquiries into the definition of “sex” should be leading the discussion of this matter.