By Teodor Teofilov
Most humans live in blissful ignorance about the world that they inhabit. Be it the biological construction of how life works, or the complex nature of financial markets, it is impossible for a single person to be well versed in every area. People can spend most of their life without knowing the engineering of their own car, let alone know the process of genetically modifying crops.
And that is normal. We all have different worries that impact our daily lives and tend to ignore large scale problems and events because they simply have no effect on us personally. The Scary Science series aims to show that some of our day-to-day issues can be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Here we will examine scientific theories that show that one event, that is out of our control, can end the world as we know it, making humanity extinct, and in some cases destroying all life on the planet.
This series might cause sleepless nights of overthinking human insignificance and bring about existential crisis for everyone who reads it.
Here we will examine the possibility that we are living in a simulation.
Is This Real Life?
Elon Musk, an entrepreneur that is trying to single handedly revolutionize transportation both on Earth and in space with Tesla and SpaceX, and other various projects such as Hyperloop, said that we might be living in a computer simulation on the Joe Rogan podcast on Setp. 6, 2018.
“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, games will eventually be indistinguishable from reality or civilization will end,” Musk said. “One of those two things will occur.”
Musk added that we are most likely living in a simulation. Now whether this is scary is up to you. Musk is just one of many people in Silicon Valley that have a keen interest in the simulation hypothesis, which states that what we think of as reality and what we experience is in fact a giant computer simulation created by a more sophisticated intelligence.
This might sound a lot like the movie The Matrix, where machines have enslaved humanity in an extremely sophisticated virtual reality system to be farmed as a power source. That is because it is.
With the extreme speeds of technological advances that we are experiencing, it can be that a species that is much older than humanity could have created our world and it could all be in fact a simulation. This is of course based on the assumption of there being any improvements, be it 1 percent or 0.1 percent, over time, then with enough time the technology required for the creation of a simulation will be reached. Unless there is either self-destruction or a great calamity that ends the species (Also we have to assume there is another species that is far more technologically and intellectually advanced).
The simulation hypothesis has been a philosophical thought experiment for a long time. The most popular argument for the simulation hypothesis comes from Nick Bostrom of Oxford University in 2003. A paper he published titled “Are You Living In a Simulation?”, suggests that an advanced “posthuman” civilization with vast computing power might choose to run simulations of their ancestors in the universe.
Bostrom’s idea dates back to René Descartes — a 17th century philosopher widely known for his “I think therefore I am” philosophical proposition — Evil Demon argument and expands on it. Descartes argument states that everything he thinks he can do can be questioned. For example, if he thinks he is sitting at a dining table eating, he could be wrong. According to his Evil Demon argument, a demon that is intent on deceiving could easily make it appear that he is eating on a dining table, even if this wasn’t true. Descartes sensory experience of eating on a a dining table could be caused by an evil demon deceiving him.
Bostrom’s argument is extrapolated from observing the current trends in technology, including the rise of virtual reality and efforts to map the human brain. In his paper he shows that at least one of three possibilities is true:
- All human-like civilizations in the universe go extinct before they develop the technological capacity to create simulated realities;
- If any civilizations do reach this phase of technological maturity, none of them ever bother to run simulations;
- Or advanced civilizations would have the ability to create many simulations, and that means there are far more simulated worlds than non-simulated ones.
Bostrom concludes that we can’t be sure which of these is the case, but they are all possible, with the last option being the most probable. It can be a difficult argument to wrap your head around, but it makes a certain amount of sense.
This argument works on the assumption that there is nothing supernatural about what causes consciousness and it’s merely the product of a very complex architecture in the human brain.
An explanation of how our consciousness came about could be found in emergence theory, which simply put is that order arises from chaos. In other words, it shows how complexity develops. For example, if you observe a single ant, you will not understand how when there is a large number of them, they can connect to one another to form a bridge to cross a gap. Emergence could be one explanation of consciousness, but there is still a lot of uncertainty.
If our consciousness isn’t supernatural, given enough time to develop the technology and sufficient computing power, we will be able to reproduce it. Bostrom suggests that in the future when we reach a posthuman stage of civilization, we will convert celestial bodies into enormously powerful computers.
If there are more simulated minds than organic ones, then it is more likely than not for us to be among the virtual minds. It is less likely that we are part of the “real” minds and in fact are nothing but a very complicated string of computer code.
Really? Simulated Universe?
Nothing is actually happening as we are perceiving it. Going back to Descartes, our senses can deceive us and the world for one is completely different than for another. When we look at things, light photons beam down and interact with our optic nerves and our brain filters out all the unnecessary light and all the things that aren’t relevant to our survival or to a specific experience. The external manifestation is an internal projection made up by our brains.
So are we really in the real world or is this the simulation of a hyper advanced civilization?
A big reason to believe that the universe is actually a simulation is the fact that it behaves mathematically and is broken up into pieces (subatomic particles) like a pixelated video game.
However, these pixels are tiny. How tiny? Well, to find the pixels of the universe we have to look even beyond the smallest particles — quarks and leptons — to what is believed by physicists to be the shortest possible length in the universe, the Planck length. A Planck length is 1.6 x 10⁻³⁵ meters, or in other words you could fit more Planck lengths along the diameter of a grain of sand than you could fit grains of sand along the diameter of the observable universe.
Although these pixels are tiny, almost dimensionless, they could give us a low resolution representation of reality. Similarly to the resolution difference between our reality and video games, this simulated reality could be a universe composed of three dimensional pixels projected by a corresponding two dimensional bit of information, an untold number of which plaster the outer surface of our sphere. In other words, it could just be a giant hologram. A universe simulated this way would be a relatively poor rendering of reality, because the pixels inside would be bigger than those on the surface.
Another argument for why we might be living in a simulation is the fact that it is highly unlikely, given the estimated age of the universe being 13.8 billion years, that we are the first to evolve to having intelligence and self-awareness. Now it could be that there exists a great filter that prevents intelligent life from conquering the stars and becoming as technologically advanced as is necessary to create such a simulation, but it could be that this filter can occur at any stage of a species development.
The great filter theory is one answer to the Fermi Paradox, which is the apparent contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of contact with such civilizations.
Simulation theory also gives a solution to some peculiarities in quantum mechanics, particularly the measurement problem. This means that things become defined when they are observed and this is something scientists have tried to eliminate. It could be that there is a need for a conscious observer such as a player in a video game.
A way that scientists are trying to prove or disprove the simulation theory is by looking inward. As video games are often created to generate the world that the player is looking at, when no one is looking there is a much looser simulation to save on computing power necessary and maximize the efficiency. Some scientists are doing quantum physics experiments, where the gaps in the simulation might be the most obvious.
It Might Be Impossible For It All To Be a Simulation
In September, 2017 a team of theoretical physicists from Oxford University showed that life and reality cannot be merely simulations generated by a massive alien computer. This finding arose from the discovery of a new link between gravitational anomalies and computational complexity.
The paper by Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhi published in the journal of Science Advances shows that creating a computer simulation of a particular quantum phenomenon that occurs in metals is both practically and principally impossible. The two set out to see if a technique known as quantum Monte Carlo — a method that uses random sampling to analyse many-body quantum problems where the equations involved cannot be solved directly — could be used to study the quantum Hall effect — a phenomenon in physical systems that have strong magnetic fields and very low temperatures, and manifests as an energy current that runs across the temperature gradient. It indicates an anomaly in the space-time geometry.
They discovered that the complexity of the simulation increased exponentially with the number of particles being simulated. As the complexity doesn’t grow linearly — doubling the particles requiring double the computing power — the amount of computing power doubles every time a particle is added. This means that the task will become impossible. Ringel and Kovrizhi calculated that storing information of a couple of hundred electrons would require a computer memory that would physically need more atoms than exist in the whole universe.
The future is ahead and there will probably be major strides in generating computing power so it is possible that we create something that is unimaginable today. However, that remains in the realm of science fiction, at least for the moment.
If we indeed aren’t living in a simulation this could raise a fairly interesting and depressing questions. It might be that humanity doesn’t live long enough to create a simulation, which could mean that the apocalypse is just around the corner. It could also be that we are the first intelligent species that has survived the great filter and we will be the first to start creating simulations.