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Millions of kids grew up with computer games like The Sims and Sim City, where you got to create and customise families or a massive city. Some would try hard to ensure everyone survived for as long as possible, while others would orchestrate hilarious or downright sinister catastrophes, and laugh while their citizens fell into peril.
But what if we are ‘sims’ in someone’s computer simulation?
While that suggestion is ridiculous to some, it’s a concept that has attracted the attention of some of the most revolutionary minds of our time, like Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk and award-winning astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The theory has been seen in science fiction novels, video games, TV shows and movies like The Matrix and Rick and Morty; but the concept became a very real conversation when Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom proposed his trilemma in a paper called Are You Living in a Computer Simulation.
His notion consisted of three propositions:
1. “The fraction of human-level civilisations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero, or
2. The fraction of posthuman civilisations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero, or
3. The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.”
Put more simply: humans or humanity will go extinct before we get to the stage where we’re able to run simulations, people in the future either won’t be interested in operating simulations if they did reach a ‘posthuman’ era or find it unethical, or we are living in one right now.
The paper also says that it might not be humans who delve into this, and could be a civilisation elsewhere in the deep reaches of space who master ancestor simulations.
Professor Bostrom tells LADbible: “If we imagine science and technology continuing to unfold and reaching a state of maturity; we can see that at that point, it would be feasible to create detailed computer simulations of people like their forbearers, and they wouldn’t be distinguishable from the original reality.”
His paper also highlights an Inception-like concept that we could be a simulation, within a simulation, within a simulation and so on: “It may be possible for simulated civilizations to become posthuman. They may then run their own ancestor-simulations on powerful computers they build in their simulated universe.”
But how much computing power would these ‘posthumans’ need to generate a simulation that feels like real life? Professor Bostom’s paper hypotheses: “Such a mature stage of technological development will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers.”
Yep, you read that right; the professor predicts that we could actually colonise planets in the future for the sole purpose of using them as a base to house a shit-tonne of supercomputers to run simulations. When the paper was released 14 years ago, Bostrom identified researchers such as Eric Drexler, who had created designs for a computer the size of a sugar cube that could perform 1021 instructions per second.
That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or sextillion instructions every single second. But that was back in 2003; imagine the advancements in computing power that have happened since then. Nick’s paper then highlighted estimates from other researchers, suggesting that the human brain, based on the number of synapses and firing power, makes roughly about 1016-1017 instructions a second.
It’s estimated that we have between 80-100 billion nerve cells, and in 2013 researchers in Japan managed to simulate one second of a person’s brain activity. However, the operation took 40 minutes, 82,944 processors and ate up 1 petabyte (that’s one level above a terabyte) of memory.
Professor Bostrom tells us that it’s virtually impossible, at this stage, to work out when this posthuman era will be: “The original simulation argument never made any assumption really about the timeline and whether it will take 50 years to get to this ability to create ancestor simulations or 50,000 years.”
However, Elon Musk made a very good point during the World Government Summit this year: “When you see the advancement of something like video games. You know, like, say 40 years ago…the most advanced video game would be like Pong where you had like two rectangles and a dot, you know, like batting it back and forth.
“But now you can see a video game that’s photo realistic…and millions of people playing simultaneously.
“And you see where things are going with virtual reality and augmented reality. And if you extrapolate that out into the future with any rate of progress at all, like even 0.1 percent or something like that a year, then eventually those games will be indistinguishable from reality.”
Take the 2016 video game No Man’s Sky as an example of how far things have come with technology. The action-adventure survival game lets players explore a universe which has more than 18 quintillion (or more specifically 18,446,744,073,709,551,616) different planets. According to the developer, Sean Murray, it would take something like 584 billion years to visit every planet.
Despite its many criticisms from fans, the fact that video game developers can produce a simulated universe that detailed in this age only fuels the likelihood that our civilisation will be able to make ancestor simulations.
At last year’s Code Conference, Elon Musk added: “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality (aka not in a simulation).” He’s talked about the simulation theory so much that he’s agreed with his brother that the topic is banned from hot-tub conversations.
An interesting aspect of the theory points towards an unlikely area: religion.
Many religions have a benevolent creator, a higher being, an all-knowing superior; which actually fits in nicely with the simulation argument. While Professor Bostrom insists that the ‘simulation-hypothesis does not imply the existence of such a deity, nor does it imply its non-existence’, he mentions how the theory mirrors people’s understanding of ‘god’.
“Although all the elements of such a system can be naturalistic, even physical,” he says. “It is possible to draw some loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world.
“In some ways, the posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are ‘omnipotent’ in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are ‘omniscient’ in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.”
One of the aspects that backers of the theory point out is that virtually everything in our world has a limit or is at least measurable. Rich Terrile, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told the Guardian: “Even things that we think of as continuous – time, energy, space, volume – all have a finite limit to their size. If that’s the case, then our universe is both computable and finite. Those properties allow the universe to be simulated.”
We already use simulations in many areas, from predicting weather patterns to what would happen to a horde of people if they came into contact with a spinning blade.
These simulations help us understand how things would react under certain circumstances.
However, despite science being a field where theories and hypotheses are researched and tested, this one is pretty difficult to prove.
According to the New Yorker, there is a team of scientists, led by two tech billionaires, who is currently trying to see whether they can break out of the simulation. Another team from the University of Washington is trying to see whether they can pick up physical signatures in our universe that could be attributable to a simulation.
As far as we know, nothing has been proven yet.
Professor Bostrom tells us: “I don’t think there’s any strong proof for one way or the other. You could imagine possible observations that would have strong bearing like if a window pops up in front of you saying, ‘You’re In A Simulation, Click Here For More Information’. That would kind of be conclusive proof.”
Until we get something as obvious as a pop-up window in real life, we’ll just keep playing games like The Sims and pretend we’re the all-powerful creator.