This human-machine co-evolution will only accelerate.
In 1961, the first minicomputer, called the PDP-1, arrived at the MIT Electrical Engineering Department. It was a revolutionary machine but, as with all things that are truly new and different, no one really knew what to do with it. Lacking any better ideas, a few of the proto-hackers in residence decided to build a game. That’s how Spacewar! was born.
Today, the creation of the Spacewar is considered a seminal event in computer history. Because it was a game, it encouraged experimentation. Hackers tried to figure out how to, say, simulate gravity or add accurate constellations of stars and by doing so would push the capabilities of the machine and themselves.
Tech investor Chris Dixon has said that the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a toy. Yet it’s because so many technologies start out as toys that we are able to experiment with and improve them. As virtual reality becomes increasingly viable, this human-machine co-evolution will only accelerate because, to create a new future, we first have to imagine it.
From Spacewar! to Real War
Growing up in Australia, Pete Morrison always thought he’d be a plumber like his father. His mother, however, had other plans. She noticed his interest in computers and how, from a young age, he spent hours tinkering on the family’s primitive Commodore 64. She pushed him to go to college. Lacking funds to do so, Pete entered the Army to finance his education.
As a Signal Corps Officer, he put his technical skills to good use, but much like the MIT geeks four decades earlier, he soon found himself preoccupied with video games. The military had commissioned a study of simulations at the Australian Defence Force Academy, where he was a student and Pete got involved with testing games. One was Operation Flashpoint, developed by some young geeks at a Prague based company called Bohemia Interactive.
“It quickly became clear that the game could be effective for training military personnel,” Morrison told me. “Before Operation Flashpoint, to train a soldier you had to go out into the field, which was expensive and time consuming. We realized that with this type of computer game, you could design training that would allow them to hone cognitive skills, which would make the in-the-field training that much more effective.”
“Also,” he continued, “because the game was so engaging we got a much deeper level of immersion, which made the training more effective and led the Australian Military to ramp up investments in video games as training tools.”
The Simulation Economy
In the industrial age, experimentation was expensive and unwieldy. Thomas Edison famously observed that if he tried 10,000 things that didn’t work, he didn’t see them as failures, but stepping stones to his next great invention. It was, of course, an ultimately effective process, but incredibly gruelling and time consuming.
Today, however, we increasingly live in a simulation economy where we can test things out in a virtual world of bits and avoid much of the mess of failing in the real world. Consider how today we battle-test different business models and scenarios in Excel. That was much more cumbersome and time consuming when spreadsheets were on paper, so we rarely did it. Now, it’s a routine activity that we do all the time.
As computers have become exponentially more powerful and software algorithms has become much more sophisticated, the usage of simulations have expanded. We use CAD software to design products and structures as well as high performance supercomputers to model weather and even invent advanced materials. When you can try out thousands of possibilities easily and cheaply, you are more likely to identify an optimal solution.
The next era of simulation will be powered by virtual reality and it is almost upon us. Just as Pete Morrison found that ordinary video games could improve tactics in the real world, virtual reality offers the possibility to take training to an entirely new level.