Are we living in a computer simulation? We could be doomed otherwise
On an ordinary day, I would bet someone suggested to you that we live in a computer simulation. Whether it’s a curious friend or the anonymous writer of a bold sign outside your local cafe, your perfectly peaceful life has been interrupted by the eerie thought.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has openly defended the concept, making headlines in recent years. Even astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave him a 50-50 chances. But on the other hand, some see it as a unscientific, unprovable mental exercise.
What we need to talk about, however, is how the original argument suggests that existing in a weird hyperrealistic video game might just be the best case scenario for us. Maybe we should hope we live in a computer simulation.
Existing in a digital reality may mean that the world will not sink into a terrible demise, like the sudden extinction of humans or the cessation of technological advances. Musk seems to agree.
Think about it.
Alluded to for centuries, from Plato cave allegory in Descartes evil demon concept, the hold of simulation theory on our attention – including that of Musk – is mainly attributed to concocted argument in 2003 by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom.
All of his work is super complex, involving calculations and hardcore symbols that take me back to my days as a student of philosophy. But in a nutshell it says one of the following must be true:
Option A: We are getting to the point where we can make an indistinguishable simulation of the natural world. So we make one.
Option B: We acquire the technology to make one, but for some reason no one ever does.
Option C: We never get there. (That is, humans go extinct before we can build one.)
Technically, Bostrom believes people will go out of their way to create a simulation that will help us understand our ancestry. But given our unwavering dedication to The Sims and Skyrim, I’d say it could really be anything.
The rise of technology
Let’s first talk about the important day that Bostrom is referring to. This is the theoretical point at which we can finally make a simulation identical to all aspects of our world.
Of course, technology still has some way to go before such a false reality can materialize, but it cannot be ignored that digital advancements have become seemingly unstoppable.
Musk often cites this certainty when discussing existential theory. At a conference in 2016, he explained that “40 years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it gets better every year. “
In fact, Japanese researchers recently created a digital version of the universe that anyone can explore, calling it Uchuu, which in Japanese means “outer space”. It contains no one, but it is considered the most realistic simulation of the universe to date and aims to help scientists study the evolution of the cosmos.
In addition to the anecdotal evidence, the researchers even tried to calculate how long it would take to get to the point when pressing a button leads to a simulated life. Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Rizwan Virk, for example, wrote a book on the subject.
There is some debate over the scale, but unless there are those who argue that it is impossible, experts like Bostrom agree the duration is over. This means that if that happens, at any time, the Forgotten Day exists somewhere on our timeline.
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far – breathe, because it’s getting stranger and stranger.
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OK, but why would we be in the simulation?
It’s a beautiful Tuesday morning, you scroll down Twitter and see news that simulating life, exactly as we know it, is doable from this day forward. All we have to do is press a big red LAUNCH SIMULATION button that will go live.
Humanity is at a crossroads: to press or not to press the button?
The prospect of not doing so seems a little pious. At the very least, someone will likely press it out of curiosity, to prove that nothing will happen, or maybe accidentally bump their touchpad and click on it. There are billions of people in the world; theory suggests that it is rather difficult to argue otherwise.
This is why Bostrom suggests that option B is highly implausible. For the sake of discussion, let’s dismiss it.
That leaves A and C. Let’s say we go with A. The button is down.
Much like Inception, a simulated world in ours would have its own timeline, starting whenever the programmers decided. Day one could spark a simulated Big Bang, or perhaps another elusive explosion that the citizens of the simulation would someday turn into a full field of study.
The âpeopleâ would have their own technological advances. They would create versions of Facebook, iPhones, and Xbox games. Eventually, they would hit the same problem as their “creators”: to press or not to press the button?
Like us, Bostrom suggests that they would likely hit the irresistible, mocking button.
The saga continues. This means that if humans have created even one simulated universe, we can assume that there is an incomprehensible amount. Who can say that we are in a regular and true to bone reality?
Also called based reality, an un-simulated world might not be in our maps.
Well, what is the probability that we are in a simulation, you ask? Studies on the exact likelihood of this outcome are ongoing, as in this paper since last year. More recent research suggests that the probability of being in a reality based may be closer to 50-50 than Bostrom’s initial intuitive projection of a billion.
End of the world?
Remember that last, scarier option, Option C? What if we never get to the level where we can do a realistic simulation?
It would mean that something has kept us from reaching the day the shiny button becomes available. Will the technology suddenly stop improving? Or worse, will the world end? Both discouraging but direct possibilities under the aegis of C.
Also, considering how quickly the technology is gaining sophistication, the point at which simulated realities have the potential to be realized is probably closer than we think. This means – except for coincidence that we are in a reality based – if we are not in a simulation, humans will hear about the spooky option C soon enough.
On the positive side, there are several philosophers and scientists who offer counter-arguments to simulation theory, and if they’re right, none of it really matters.
For example, a team of theoretical physicists from the University of Oxford claim that there is no enough atoms in the universe to create sufficient computational memory to store a realistic simulation of consciousness.
It also invites the question of whether we can program consciousness, as humans still dispute what that really involves. The limiting step may not be the tools, but rather the knowledge.
Innovation also continues to occur in new directions in the field. A hallucinating hypothesis from last year takes note of how Bostrom’s argument is based on the fact that the universe is physical. He posits that “reality” could simply be an expression of our thoughts.
Could the “simulation” just be our imagination?
If he is on the right, Bostrom makes a pretty strong argument as to why option A is the ideal outcome, because the real best option – option B – is incredibly optimistic. Someone would press the button if presented to them.
What about option C? Option C would mean humans die out relatively quickly on the timeline of life or something tragically ruins our entire technological research momentum, like maybe a killer asteroid or a world-changing pandemic.
After the absolutely catastrophic two years we have all been through, I think I know what I would prefer if these were the options available to me.