Have you come across a scientist who looks like this!
Scientists of the future centuries may look like him!
The Guardian Profile: Jaron Lanier
The virtual visionary
A young geek, he went to university at 14. He dropped out to work as a musician but made his name as a pioneer of virtual reality. A key philosopher of the computer age, he also sounds a warning note about the limits of technology. Oliver Burkeman reports
When he was 11 – before he became a goat farmer, and a midwife, the owner of the world’s largest flute, and one of the most influential philosopher-scientists of the computer age – Jaron Lanier liked mucking about with electronics. In the rural backwaters of 1970s New Mexico, that was quite enough to mark him out as a dangerous oddball. “This was a seriously redneck place, a place that really hadn’t been exposed to much,” he says now. The Lanier family lived in the second poorest county in the United States. “There were diseases that just shouldn’t still have existed in America. There were… deformities.”
He vividly remembers the day he rigged an old oscilloscope up to a photographic enlarger lens to project wild, constantly changing shapes onto the walls of a darkened room. “I made a sort of haunted house, and I said to the other kids, ‘Come on, come see my haunted house!'” He might as well have summoned the devil, such was the abject terror the light-show produced in his peers. “I was mortified,” he says. “I had put so much effort into it and they were just too scared to watch.”
More than three decades later, Lanier is still fashioning artificial worlds, but his stage is global now. You cannot buy a car, or fill it with petrol, or undergo certain kinds of surgery, or drill for oil, without benefiting in some respect from virtual reality, the phenomenon for which he is famed and, in certain circles, practically deified. He has a modest dinner-party definition of his work – “coming up with gadgets so that you can fake a person into thinking they’re in an artificial place” – but few recent innovations have had such consequences.
“Virtual reality vividly demonstrates that our social contract with our own tools has brought us to a point where we have to decide fairly soon what it is we humans ought to become, because we are on the brink of having the power of creating any experience we desire,” writes the historian of technology Howard Rheingold. “VR represents a kind of new contract between humans and computers, an arrangement that could grant us great power, and perhaps change us irrevocably in the process.”
In the 1992 movie Lawnmower Man, based on the novel by Stephen King, a crazed scientist uses his slow-witted gardener as a guinea-pig for his virtual reality experiments, launching him into an alternative universe created by a computer and turning him into a hyperintelligent monster in the process. The film version of the megalomaniac inventor, tinkering with the very fabric of reality itself, is rumoured to be based on Lanier, who has a formidable academic reputation despite his lack of either a university job or a degree, and cult status in the computer world. It has even earned him – and he is particularly proud of this – a postage stamp commemorating his work, issued by the Micronesian island chain of Palau.
He combines it all with a professional career as a pianist and player of obscure and bizarre musical instruments, more than 700 of which clutter his downtown New York apartment. “He is this extraordinary person – gifted, generous and ethical,” says his friend, the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. “People ask why we don’t have more renaissance people these days. Jaron shows that it is still possible.”
And yet the portly, dreadlocked 41-year-old is far from happy with the state of the revolution he has spearheaded. As a computer scientist, he has spent his career pushing the transformative power of modern technology to its limits. But as a philosopher, he has been sounding a warning for the last two decades that seems, initially at least, spectacularly incongruous: the world, he says, is far too much in love with computers.
He is infuriated when neuroscientists like Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker characterise the human brain as nothing more than a complex computer. He wishes researchers did not spend millions of dollars in pursuit of “artificial intelligence” in the blithe certainty that there is nothing inimitably unique about human consciousness. And he has watched in disbelief as a succession of seemingly serious thinkers have declared there is no reason why a race of intelligent computers should not take over the world, possibly rather soon.
Lanier has always clung, instead, to the belief that technology must enhance human life and opportunities for human contact, not supplant them. “If we allow our self-congratulatory adoration of technology to distract us from our own contact with each other,” he says, padding in stockinged feet around his apartment, “then somehow the original agenda has been lost.”
He practices what he preaches, and in rock-star fashion. At a debate last month at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, guest speakers were invited to stroke a supposedly intelligent robotic cat, designed at great expense by computer scientists at Sony. It was exactly the sort of saccharine expression of faith in the power of technology to rival the living world that Lanier cannot stand. “All I did was pick it up by its head, and it broke,” he says.
ICA staff watched aghast as hundreds of research hours and thousands of dollars clattered to the tabletop. The damage was unintentional, Lanier swears, but he cannot help adding: “I had thought I might destroy the thing dramatically at the end of the talk… I hate the idea of artificial life, and I think that petting an artificial cat demeans us all.” Over the ruined feline’s remains, he gave what he describes as “an angry and passionate talk about the value of real life and the urgency of not confusing ourselves about it”. ICA staff spoke of taking action against him. So far, none has materialised.
Lanier still isn’t sure why his father and mother, Ellery and Lillian, chose to move from New York City to the Mesilla Valley, near the border with Mexico, shortly after the birth of their only child in May 1960. Maybe the surroundings, the arid sandscapes interspersed with sinister military research facilities – White Sands is a missile-testing range – appealed to Ellery, a writer for pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic, Amazing and Astounding.
The job didn’t pay all that much, but the family got by on the earnings of Lillian, a concert pianist who traded shares on Wall Street by telephone from her desert home. She died in a car crash when Jaron was nine.
“Honestly, you’re not going to get me to talk about that,” he says, although later he will attribute all his subsequent work to an attempt “to find the connection I lost”. It was already an eccentric family; deprived of one of its breadwinners, it became markedly more so. “My father wasn’t really the money person, and we ended up moving to a stretch of desert and living in tents. Eventually, we built a house, which he let me design.” It was predictably unconventional, all spires and crystals, with a geodesic dome as its centrepiece.
The father and son who lived in the dome were “part of the local colour,” recalls Alvy Ray Smith, the renowned pioneer of computer graphics, who grew up nearby, along with Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, “whose backyard bristled with telescopes”. Part of the Lanier home has since collapsed – “which is what happens when you let a kid design your house,” says Lanier – but Ellery still lives in the structurally sound part. He works as a lecturer in psychology at New Mexico State University, having completed, in later life, a PhD on the links between body shape and personality.
Undistracted by friends – “friendship wasn’t an option, really; it was a very tough, macho, difficult culture” – Lanier ploughed his way through high school and talked his way into NMSU, based in the city of Las Cruces. He was 14. The university was little more than a small-town college, its students dominated by local cowboys, but the state’s weapons industry meant its science departments were anomalously packed with world-class minds.
There was a pioneering spirit among the computer scientists, too. The internet had already begun – there were around 30 computers – and during Lanier’s second year the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, arrived on the market. Lanier was already gripped by the untapped communicative power of the pictures that computers could generate. “I was interested in the idea of why maths is hard,” he says of his youthful research. “These strings of Greek symbols are sort of daunting, and I thought the whole idea of text on a page might be the wrong way of thinking about maths. What about visual representations in 3D?”
And so he became an early specimen of the computer geek, one of the thousands of bright but shy, socially awkward teenagers who would find in the burgeoning computer revolution a means to express themselves. He joined the advance guard of what the social commentator Jon Katz calls “an inconspicuous movement, attracting millions of intelligent, technologically aware, community-oriented, self-described outsiders, mesmerised by finding themselves in a club that will not only take them in, but puts them in charge”.
For about two years, he learned to program computers, but only because his research required it. Programming bored him: more strings of symbols that seemed unnecessarily obfuscatory. He grew restless. “Then one day I met this guy with a goatee and a van and a beatnik-like ambience, and he said he went to an art school where he hung out with artists and poets. And I just knew I had to drop everything and go.” And so, at around 16, he followed the goatee to Bard College, a bastion of privilege and pot-smoking on the bank of the Hudson River in upstate New York.
Lanier dropped out of Bard before the first year was up, disgusted with the elitism and the indolence. For a while, he eked out a living as a musician in New York, before returning to New Mexico. There, for about a year, he organised protests against the state’s expanding nuclear power industry. “For us, it was a psychic stand-in for nuclear weapons,” Lanier says. The TV stations had to provide balanced political viewpoints, so when the state announced a tax levy to subsidise the sector, he and some friends managed to force screenings of anti-nuclear advertisements along with the pro-nuclear ones. “We made our own ads, by consensus. It was an internet-like thing, in the sense of creating a tremendous amount of community. I’m sure the ads stunk, though.”
He was in his early 20s and jobless in New Mexico; activism didn’t pay, and he needed money. He kept goats, selling their milk and cheese, but the income was not enough. So he found work as an assistant midwife, helping indigent Mexican farmworkers deliver their babies. “And then, well, a baby was born right on the border, of uncertain nationality. The mother was schizophrenic and the father was in jail, and, I ended up taking care of it.” For months, with one arm he bottle-fed a newborn girl while he programmed computers with the other.
“Finally the father got out of jail, and to say thank you, he gave me a car. It had been hit by a police bullet, but they’d put a bumper-sticker over the hole.” (He last heard of the girl at the end of the 80s, when she was 10 years old, “and doing well”.) The car was a rusty Dodge Dart with a makeshift ignition and no floor – “you saw the road going by through it” – but it was Lanier’s ticket out. Driving so slowly that he was stopped by suspicious police in Arizona, he managed to make it to Silicon Valley.
It was the early 80s and the sprawling suburbs and office parks around Palo Alto, California, were pregnant with a sense of possibility. “They were, like, you can program that kind of computer? You’ve done this? Sure – you’re totally employable! All of a sudden I was getting offers for jobs that paid beyond my wildest dreams. I was stunned.” He quickly made a small fortune programming computer games, including the pioneering, graphically complex Moondust for the Commodore 64. But instead of replacing the car – or moving out of the garage in which he had taken up cut-price residence – he turned his tiny home into a workshop, and went back to tinkering with electronics.
“I walked into this thing – I’d never seen anything like it at all,” recalls Steve Bryson, now a VR researcher at the North American Space Administration, who arrived in Lanier’s garage when virtual reality technology was in its earliest stages. “It was feverish. A lot happened very quickly. I had long hair and wore pink shirts; we were pretty hippyish, and we were very, very excited about what we were doing.”
The excitement spread beyond the garage. “People were coming from all over, and saying: ‘what the hell is this thing?'” Lanier recalls. The “thing” slowly took solid form, and Lanier joined forces with a fellow maverick programmer, Thomas Zimmerman, who had designed a glove to be used as an input device. “That was when the coolness index just went through the roof,” says Bryson. Within three years, a head-mounted display had been completed.
Despite its revolutionary potential, the nuts and bolts of the technology are fairly straightforward to describe. The user straps on a headset, through which images are projected onto each eye to create the illusion of three dimensions, and wears a glove which senses hand movements, enabling them to interact with what they see. More ambitiously, the team later developed the DataSuit, a full-body garment capable of sensing movements of the arms, legs, torso and feet. Combined with the internet, such gadgets will allow groups of people thousands of miles apart to interact in a virtual space their brains cannot distinguish from reality.
In September 1984, Lanier’s groundbreaking work made the cover of Scientific American magazine, although it nearly didn’t. Shortly before press time, a worried editor rang him demand to know what university or company was the young scientist affiliated to? None, Lanier replied. “Sir,” said the editor, “at Scientific American we have a strict rule that states that an affiliation must be indicated after a contributor’s name.” Lanier grabbed a name out of thin air. “VPL Research,” he blurted, thinking it would maybe stand for visual, or virtual, programming language. (He did not pause to consider any other possible meanings.) When the magazine was published, investors started calling, and the virtual company became a real one. Soon, it was supplying research labs around the world with virtual-reality equipment. Full VR systems sold for $225,000. At its height, VPL had annual sales of $6m.
His idiosyncratic public image – specifically, his dreadlocks – may have helped, but he insists that it was not cultivated. “I’m always finding people say that other people must think this or that [about my hair], but I rarely encounter anyone who thinks this thing,” he says. “It just grew on me this way when I was a kid. It’s nothing.”
It was Lanier who christened the embryonic technology. “I don’t even like it,” he says of the term today. “It’s a stupid term. But I thought it had a ring to it, and it sounded quirky enough, and right on the edge of being contradictory – but not quite – so that it would grab attention, and be a nice cute phrase. I was on a train in Italy some time later, and I had thought of a term that was much better than ‘virtual reality’. But then there was some distraction with the ticket conductor and I never got it back.”
The vast creative possibilities of virtual reality have made it, for many, a natural match with drug culture. “Virtual reality,” observes the cultural anthropologist David Hess, “strikes me as a high-tech version of shamanism. The idea of producing controlled virtual worlds is as old as hallucinogenic trance voyages and vision quests.” But Lanier disagrees vehemently. Harnessing technology to the power of the imagination, he argues, should be a way for its users to engage more, not to escape from engagement – a philosophy he applies to himself with rigour. “I’ve never used marijuana, and I haven’t tasted alcohol since my bar mitzvah. I’ve even given up chocolate.
“If you run into somebody at a cocktail party now, they’ll think of VR as an escapist medium, and I know why it happened. In the 1980s, Tim [Leary] made his liv ing on the speaking circuit and he got this idea that virtual reality would be a striking thing to talk about. At first glance, it does seem to have something to do with the psychedelic experience. But it’s almost the logical opposite. You’re not in retreat, you’re not passive, you’re not having an experience wash over you. You have to be intentional. You get tired. It’s a waking state activity. It’s not like taking drugs; it’s like going on a hike. Or -” he pauses to construct a characteristically elaborate metaphor – “it’s like going on a hike and being the sculptor of the mountain at the same time.”
But Lanier’s view of where this leads – to an enhancement of human communication, instead of to super-intelligent computers – baffles many proponents of artificial intelligence, Daniel Dennett among them. Is he saying, Dennett demands, that computers with human-like intelligence – or even more – are “something we couldn’t develop, or shouldn’t develop?” Neither, says Lanier: artificial intelligence is something we could never know, by definition, if we had attained it. “Despite these ridiculous tests we give our children, there is no measure for intelligence, and treating it as an engineering goal puts one in a very strange position,” he says.
“You can measure speed. But if you want to engineer a device to maximise its beauty, you no longer have a measurement device. It becomes subjective. Artificial intelligence is like that. When you talk to a person, there’s an element of faith on your part that there really is somebody at home.” Proponents of AI, Lanier says, need to “justify why someone should show this good faith to a computer”.
Alvy Ray Smith concurs. “I know that no scientist knows how to make a machine intelligent or conscious. I know many who believe it’s possible, but that’s different. That’s religion. I don’t mind people having the religion. I suppose I have it too. But to cross the line and claim it’s a done deal is not good science.”
This argument frustrates neuroscientists such as Dennett and Pinker, who tend to argue that the experience of human consciousness – the “feeling of what happens” – is a kind of error or illusion, or an accidental byproduct of the brain-computer’s operation. Lanier likes to goad them. Several times, he has suggested in public that Dennett himself may actually be a flesh-covered robot, lacking any internal experience. “Although if he is a fleshy automaton, he’s a very good-natured one.”
Mesmerised by the technical and conceptual possibilities, Lanier paid little attention to the legal and commercial niceties of running a company. “I signed some stupid documents,” he explains. In accepting financing from a French firm, Thomson- CSF, he staked his patents in virtual reality as collateral against a loan. So when, in the early 90s, VPL’s fortunes began to tumble, his patents were lost in the fiasco that followed. Lanier blames the micromanagement of Thomson, which made a hostile takeover bid for the firm, and he now expresses a violent dislike of French bureaucrats. (After seven more years of legal wrangling, the patents are now owned by the software giant Sun Microsystems.)
At 32 Lanier was ousted from VPL, abandoned without payoff or patents. Towards the end of the period he married and two years later had a “difficult” divorce from, a woman named Deborah (he will not reveal anything else about her; she is “another person who leads a private life,” he says). He has described the whole experience as a “big psychic blow”. On his sacking from VPL, though, he says he feels no resentment. “It sounds so un-American to say this, but I’m so self-indulgent, I have these instruments, a pipe organ . . . how rich is one supposed to be? Maybe this is my lefty guilt, but it seems to me our sense of entitlement is exaggerated in this society. I can’t imagine me, and the life I’ve had, feeling as if I’d been screwed.”
And if his marriage and his business had both collapsed, that did not quite represent the totality of Lanier’s life: for years, he has pursued a seemingly quite separate career as a professional musician. As a child in New Mexico, he had idolised Conlon Nancarrow, the American composer declared “prematurely anti-fascist” by the US government for fighting in Spain against Franco; Lanier travelled miles to visit the exile at his home in Mexico. Lanier’s was not, really, a classical training; among its legacies is a method he devised for playing lightning-fast arpeggios on a piano keyboard after watching Nancarrow cut piano rolls to achieve the effect. Lanier does it manually, with a rolling movement involving the back of his hand that would make more conventionally educated pianists blanch.
As an experimental musician, he has worked with composers and musicians from Sean Lennon to Philip Glass, amassing a collection of extraordinary and vast instruments which clutter his TriBeCa apartment in New York. Among them is a triple-contra-bass recorder and a glass harmonica – the series of rotating glass cylinders invented by Benjamin Franklin which produce haunting harmonies when played with a finger wetted in vinegar. On September 11, the building – five blocks from Ground Zero – was evacuated, and a tap left running on a higher floor caused flooding damage; about 30 instruments were lost. But more are on the way: a Dutch craftsman is building Lanier the world’s largest fully chromatic modern flute; it will be nearly five metres tall.
“He is unique, and he is a work in progress, which is the best posture for a creative person to take,” says his friend John Brockman, the literary agent who also represents him and runs Edge.org, an online and real-life organisation which brings together thinkers from a broad range of disciplines for discussion and debate on grand, meaning-of-life questions. “Most people become adult and they die; this guy can process so many things at once. My favourite people are people you can’t describe – it means something’s going on. If you can describe it, it’s dead.” This is how Lanier thinks of himself, too. The two worlds are not quite discrete. In his performance work, Shards For Piano And Virtual World, Lanier’s piano music generates fleeting, pulsating three-dimensional shapes on a screen – the kind that scared his young New Mexican neighbours. There is another connection, too. “The instrument collection is basically pure neurosis but I do think of instruments as having the best interfaces that have ever been designed,” he says. “If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.”
On May 9, 2000, in university laboratories in Chapel Hill in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and Lanier’s lab in Armonk, New York, Lanier and his colleagues reached another significant landmark in the history of virtual reality. It was the first demonstration of “tele-immersion”, the technology Lanier has been developing since the collapse of VPL. This time there are no goggles or wired-up gloves; the idea, instead, is that people at separate locations appear physically, three-dimensionally present to each other, in real space. A “sea of cameras” focussed on each participant captures their image from a multitude of perspectives and seeks to recreate them on three-dimensional displays. “Unlike the cartoonish virtual worlds I had worked with for many years, the remote people and places I was seeing were clearly derived from reality.”
The project is in its early stages: the images of the three researchers, sitting at their respective desks, were clunky and blurred, and it was not quite possible to forget the screens from which their images were being projected. The initiative is closely linked to “Internet 2”, a network currently costing $60m per year to develop, which will have the capacity to transmit the vast quantities of data that tele-immersion requires. But the possibilities are clear. Some of them make Lanier uncomfortable – if tele-immersion could eliminate the need for some forms of travel, for example, would that increase or reduce the potential for real human communication? – but he has to ignore the qualms. He has no option.
“This is our quest, as a civilisation,” he says. “To answer the question: how do we save ourselves from ourselves without losing ourselves? I think there’s a reasonable, educated guess that one part of the answer must involve some degree of channels of communication, of self-knowledge. And that’s why I maintain my faith that research in new forms of media is ultimately for the good. I’m an advocate of human nature. I don’t want us to abdicate our nature in favour of a technological agenda. And yet I’m advocating something that’s quite flawed, and that’s difficult, no question about it. I’m still finding my balance.”
Life at a glance: Jaron Lanier
Born: May 3, 1960
Education: New Mexico State University, Las Cruces; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.
Marital status: Divorced.
Career: 1970s political activist and musical performer; early ’80s computer programmer, Atari; ’83 founder, VPL Research; ’93 chief technical officer, Domain Simulations; ’97 lead scientist, National Tele-Immersion Initiative.
Some landmarks: 1984 first commercial interface gloves; ’87 commercially available head-mounted displays; ’89 networked virtual world system; 2000, first demonstration of tele-immersion.
Some music: ’98 Mirror/ Storm, symphony commissioned by St Paul Chamber Orchestra; ’99 soundtrack for Three Seasons, award winner at Sundance festival; ’00 Canons For Wroclaw and other pieces for the 1000th anniversary of its founding, Wroclaw, Poland.