Oculus VR founder isn't creeped out by our sci-fi future, and neither am I

Commentary: Forget robot overlords and dystopian futures. Palmer Luckey looks to the bright (and boring) side of what tech has in store.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
3 min read

When we imagine a future where humans and robots coexist, it doesn't take long for us to arrive at a conclusion where the human race tragically ends. A robot uprising usually occurs, followed by the inevitable enslavement of all humankind. Sometimes dancing is involved.

But when it comes to the future and what will actually unfold, Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR (which Facebook now owns) and inventor of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, isn't sweating it.

"The reason I'm not creeped out is pretty simple," said Luckey, who sat down with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Re/code journalist Kara Swisher on Saturday at the Silicon Valley Comic Con in San Jose, California.

"A lot of people look to science-fiction for representations of technology. It can be exciting. It can also be flawed."

Citing movies like "The Matrix" and the artificial intelligence (AI) program Skynet from "The Terminator," Luckey disagrees with how both virtual reality and AI are commonly portrayed in science-fiction.

"It's depicted as a world-ending-nightmarish technology," he said. "It is sensationalism."

Scenes from Silicon Valley Comic Con (pictures)

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I believe Luckey is right, and this sensationalism does trickle out of sci-fi books and movies and into our apprehensions and fears toward VR and AI technology. Back in February, people became unsettled after an image of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was captured during a Samsung MWC 2016 press event. In it, a smiling Zuckerberg strides along a packed and darkened room full of people wearing VR headsets.

Many were quick to jump on the image's eerie connotations. CNET rounded up commentary from people who freaked out about it and BGR wrote that the photo was "creeping out everyone." The Verge described the picture as "a billionaire superman with a rictus grin, striding straight past human drones, tethered to machines and blinded to reality by blinking plastic masks."

When Zuckerberg posted the photo on Facebook, commenters compared the attendees to zombies, and one user wrote, "I don't want to live in a world like this. I want to be able to touch a flower in bloom, and smell it. I want to be able to hug someone, and tell them I love them in person."

Enlarge Image

The disconcerting photo of Zuckerberg at Samsung's MWC 2016 keynote, which rustled everyone's jimmies.

Screenshot taken by Lynn La/CNET

Of course, you can still touch a flower and smell it. VR headsets aren't going to stop you from doing any of those things. They can, however, show you a surrealist Dali painting; how to land a space mission on Mars; or what daily life is like in a refugee camp to raise awareness about the Syrian Civil War.

True, it's not all rainbows and butterflies with VR and AI. There are valid concerns right now about potentially harmful content, privacy and security, and the general anti-social nature of these technologies. But Luckey believes these concerns aren't reason enough to not move forward, and as we continually navigate through these issues, the future will be anticlimactic.

"When we end up having perfect AI, it's going to be a lot more boring than what people imagine,"
he said. "I don't think it's going to make for a great sci-fi novel."

And what happens in real life is usually duller than what we let on. The attendees in the Zuckerberg photo were there to see a phone launch. Headsets were placed on every seat and Samsung introduced the phone with a short VR video. Zuckerberg came on stage to talk about integrating 360-video content with social VR apps, then walked off.

If that's the Orwellian nightmare we were all afraid of, then it included a lot more press releases, wristbands, and cheesy demo videos than I expected.

As for VR itself, most content revolves around gaming, followed by movies and shows. Then there's good old fashion porn. So you know, business as usual.

There's always value in approaching technology with a mix of caution and excitement. But I believe our fear of an imminent robot takeover is misplaced. Personally, I'm more afraid of fellow human beings and the harm we're currently inflicting on ourselves. Issues like online harassment, government overreach and spying and Net neutrality concern us all now, but alas, they don't make for sexy headlines.

As for Luckey, he also isn't too concerned about robots, AI or VR platforms going rogue and leading us into a dystopian future.

"I think we're going to figure out how to use these technologies for good," he said. "I'm a relentless optimist about this."