Monday, April 27, 2015

The Simulation Hypothesis

Are we actually living in a computer simulation? I'm not. But you might be. This idea was explored most famously in the films The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor. (I actually thought the second of these was a better treatment of the topic). But surprisingly, philosophers and scientists have also taken this idea seriously.

The Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has proposed that we are more likely than not to be living in a computer simulation.  (Bostrom maintains a web page covering this and a variety of other fascinating ideas). His argument, roughly speaking, is that any sufficiently advanced civilization will produce millions or billions of computer simulations, at such a high level of sophistication that the inhabitants of these simulations would be unable to distinguish them from reality. Unless we occupy a very special place in the universe, the odds are a million to one, or a billion to one, that we are actually living in a computer simulation instead of in the real world. (Of course, a similar argument suggests that I am more likely to be Chinese than American, but let's not go there...)

How could we test this idea? Physicist John Barrow has pointed out that all computer programs require periodic upgrades to prevent software failures -- if our software got "upgraded" we might see small, sudden changes in the laws of physics.  For instance, the speed of light might suddenly jump by a fraction of a percent overnight.

But more importantly, how could we prevent out digital overlords from pulling the plug? Economist Robin Hanson wrote an entire paper on this topic.  He suggested that if our world exists (like most of our own simulations) to entertain the programmers, then the obvious answer is to try to be as interesting as possible. I, on the other hand, recommend shameless groveling.

In fact, I don't find the simulation argument very convincing, because I don't think there is any evidence that machine consciousness is even possible.  But that didn't stop me from writing a story about it shortly after I encountered Bostrom's argument.  I'll post it next time.

Update:  the short story is here.

Update:  my main blog site is www.cosmicyarns.com.

14 comments:

Peter Denton said...

Once concern of mine on this is how we assign probabilities to existing in a simulation or a real universe.

Robert Scherrer said...

Yes, that's the key point in the whole argument. Bostrom has lots of discussion of this on his web page. Take a look at the section titled "Anthropics and Probability." The discussion of the "Sleeping Beauty Problem" is particularly interesting. And of course this is a central issue in the anthropic principle in cosmology.

cam cameron said...

Probably the universe is real and our perceptions of it are the simulation.

Thanks for the thought provoking blog.

Kenkloba said...

Ken Kloba. I am concerned about the relationship of fractals and the real world are we just a mathematical equation

Robert Scherrer said...

Max Tegmark has written extensively on the relationship between mathematics and the physical universe. I'd recommend taking a look at this book.

Ashley Latimore said...

I choose to swallow that red pill.

ryan mason said...

This almost sounds like foundational principle of a religion. God is just a bored computer programmer, maybe we're a thesis project. Maybe it's an extremely inefficient method of designing AIs, or a physics project to create a universe with a different set of cosmological constants than their own to test for stability. I could keep going all day, and that's discounting possibilities I lack the knowledge or intellectual capacity to formulate. On a philosophical level this highlights the absurd, yet paradoxically also creates a meaning for the system as a whole (whatever the programmer made it for). If I were trying to appease this programmer my bet would be to focus on technology to warp and bend these laws to our benefit/amusement. Most of my programmer friends love finding new ways to make system do unexpected things, and by doing things, like getting around the speed of light, we make the whole system more interesting. "Hey dude, check it out, the A.I.s took that quantum tunneling patch I made get the stars to ignite and stretched it out big enough to move vehicles through", as an example.

Unknown said...

If we could get around the speed of light maybe we could access communication with aliens

cecilia said...

Tey sre here

cecilia said...

Tey sre here

Anonymous said...

Here is not here.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interesting article along with the story and reference links provided which I will review later.

Unknown said...

Another attempt to minimize God and Heaven with earthly concepts.

Allen jeley said...

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