Are We Living in a Simulated Universe?

Simulated reality.  Holographic universe.  The Matrix.  If you think the world is a strange place that just keeps getting stranger, or perhaps might not even be “real,” then welcome to an elite group of notables, including Space X CEO and billionaire, Elon Musk; astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson; MIT cosmologists, Alan Guth and Max Tegmark; Google’s machine-intelligence guru and futurist, Ray Kurzweil; and University of Maryland physicist, S. James Gates.

A growing army of physicists, information theorists, computer scientists and cosmologists have been making continued observations about the underlying—and inexplicable—mathematical order found in the universe.  While some scientists have been reluctant to accept the “Intelligent Design” hypothesis, let alone the idea of a creator God, the evidence for an underlying code or set of mathematical rules that suggests not only a cosmic intelligence but a kind of simulated or holographic “reality” to our universe has been gaining ground in recent years.

Reflecting on how the roles might be reversed if we were actually the characters inside someone else’s simulation, Max Tegmark, a cosmologist and author of The Mathematical Universe, commented: “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical.  That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.” [1]

What has also puzzled some scientists is how concepts from information theory—and even computer code!—keep popping up in the realm of quantum physics. Dr. S. James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, remarked, “In my research [on superstring theory] I found this very strange thing. I was driven to error-correcting codes—they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry? This brought me to the stark realization that I could no longer say people like Max [Tegmark] are crazy.” [2]

During an interview at Code Conference 2016, Space X CEO, Elon Musk, made it clear that he is a firm believer in the artificial reality conjecture: “There’s a one in billions chance we’re in base reality.” [3] By base reality, Musk refers to what we would normally think of as ordinary reality.  By Musk’s account then, we are very, very far from that, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a bit more conservative, still puts the odds of us living in a simulation at approximately 50/50. Even futurist, Ray Kurzweil, commented that, “Maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe.”  [4]

According to Elon Musk:

The strongest argument for us being in a simulation, probably being in a simulation, is the following: 40 years ago, we had Pong, two rectangles and a dot…That is what games were. Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality. [5]

While the 1999 film, The Matrix, ignited the imaginations of many, British philosopher Nicholas Bostrom first introduced the academic version of the simulation hypothesis in 2003.  According to Bostrom, there is a likelihood that advanced civilizations in the future will run sophisticated computer simulations of past civilizations.  In fact, they might even play them like video games. [6]

However, both scientists and philosophers have debated the simulation hypothesis for years now.  By definition, a simulation is an “imitation of a situation or process.” Thus, if we were indeed living in a simulation, we would not be able to exist or interact with our physical world unless every conceivable interaction with our surroundings was also part of an elaborate program to fool our brain in every possible way.  Even if that were true, then at such a sophisticated level of simulation, where even simulated objects had taken on objective physicality, would it no longer even be a simulation? [7]

Others have argued against a simulated reality based on the limitations of computing. No matter how powerful quantum computers become over the intervening decades or even centuries, using them to create a real physical world, or “simulation,” might always remain a technological impossibility.  In the ultimate doom scenario, humans might not even survive long enough for our civilization to advance to such a point. [8]

Cosmologist Alan Guth proposes more of a middle ground: perhaps, he theorizes, our Universe is “real” in the way in which most people understand the term, yet still the lab experiment of a super-intelligence. “There is nothing in principle that rules out the possibility of manufacturing a universe in an artificial Big Bang,” says Guth, “filled with real matter and energy.” This would not destroy the universe in which it was made, according to Guth, since the new universe would “create its own bubble of space-time” and separate from “that in which it was hatched.”  Guth concludes that, “This bubble would quickly pinch off from the parent universe and lose contact with it.” [9]

However, it is the more radical opinions—those held by Elon Musk, for example—that capture the imagination and call our very belief system into question, because they propose that we are all simulated beings in our entirety, as is everything around us, no matter what makes that possible.  Since our brains are simulated, we respond to equally simulated, artificial input.  In fact, we might be little more than strings of binary digits, mere information manipulated on some sort of cosmic computer, little more than characters in a video game or, at best, co-creators in a cosmic, virtual reality show.

For those who question this possibility, the counter-argument goes something like this: given the technology that we currently have, we are already creating simulations and virtual worlds.  Given even better technology, why would we stop?  In fact, would we not wish to push even further, to create the ultimate simulated reality with conscious characters who experience it all as “real,” or, to make it possible for us to inhabit those “artificial bodies” and experience the virtual reality as if it were truly our own lives?  While the logistics may beg to differ, there is nothing, in principle, that prohibits the possibility of creating truly realistic simulations someday in which our characters or agents experience and acknowledge themselves as real and self-determined, or where we can actually inhabit them and experience life through them as our ultimate avatars.

Theoretical physicist, S. James Gates, has devoted a lifetime to studying superstring theory.  Recently, Dr. Gates reported an amazing discovery.  Deep within the equations of supersymmetry, he states, there are:

“doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block codes. This unsuspected connection suggests that these codes may be ubiquitous in nature, and could even be embedded in the essence of reality. If this is the case, we might have something in common with the Matrix science-fiction films, which depict a world where everything human being’s experience is the product of a virtual-reality-generating computer network.” [10]

When Gates speaks of “doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block code,” he clarifies it as being the stuff of Claude Shannon’s breakthrough work in Information Theory.  In 1948, Shannon showed how to send a reliable message using error correcting code.  In the event that part of the information was lost or gobbled in transmission, the error-correcting code assured it could still be understood on the receiving end.  [11] We routinely add these additional bits of information to a digital transmission today to ensure its accuracy. Gates claims that he has discovered this very same error-correcting code through his equations, suggesting that someone—or some Thing—has embedded error-correcting code into the fundamental equations that make up the supersymmetric model of the universe.

While all of this might seem impossible, even ridiculous or fanciful, some of Silicon Valley’s technology titans are taking it very seriously.  In fact, at least two of them are actually investing millions of dollars to find a way out of the very technological world that they’ve helped to create.  Elon Musk himself and Sam Altman, entrepreneur and president of Y Combinator, have been working with scientists to establish an escape route from the overly-realistic virtual world that might soon await us.  And if Musk is to be believed, it may have already arrived. According to Sam Altman, who founded the non-profit OpenAI with Musk, the two are attempting to finance this literal escape plan. [12]

According to a New Yorker report, “People in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer.” [13]

For quite a while, Musk has proposed that simulated reality is on the verge of taking over and that we are “probably” already living in a simulated world today. This wouldn’t be all bad news, though. “Otherwise,” Musk explains, “if civilization stops advancing, then that may be due to some calamitous event that stops civilization.” [14] However, he is still committed to escaping the Matrix, as well as making certain that artificial intelligence doesn’t start killing us to achieve its objectives [15]—a deeply-held concern also advanced by noted physicist, Stephen Hawking. “It would take off on its own,” Hawking predicts, “and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.  Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” [16]

If we don’t believe any of this, then proving the opposite—that the universe is indeed real and not a simulation—might actually be impossible to do. “You’re not going to get proof that we’re not in a simulation, because any evidence that we get could be simulated,” argues David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University. [17]

Armed with this threat, Altman and Musk are inventing options for protecting humanity from digital overlords through their pro-human initiative, OpenAI. For example, the group studies safety measures and invests in ‘friendly’ A.I. that will fight to protect humans from machines and keep goal-bent intelligence, such as Google’s proposed DeepMind Technologies (which would monitor competition worldwide) from going too far. [18]As Musk warned in the New Yorker, “If the A.I. that they develop goes awry, we risk having an immortal and superpowerful dictator forever.” He added, “Murdering all competing A.I. researchers as its first move strikes me as a bit of a character flaw.” [19]

If it seems odd that Musk and Altman would team up with technology to fight technology, Musk believes that a merger is our best chance for survival.  As he explained to the New Yorker, the merge has already begun, and any future scenario without a merge will be marred by conflict: either we enslave the A.I. or it enslaves us. The ultimate vision of the merge, in which technology becomes fully integrated into the human physiology, was proposed back in 2005 by Ray Kurzweil. [20] Musk now advocates the same idea as our best chance for survival, and he takes it one step further: eventually, we upload our very brains into the clouds. [21]

If Musk is correct, it might not be all bad: there could be multiple levels of both reality and advanced technologies awaiting us. Of course, there might also be the other, equally plausible scenario that this indeed is the only base reality—the one we’re living in—in which case, a simulated universe, at least one created by us, would likely be an impossibility.

Oxford philosophy and computer science professor, Peter Millican, had this to say about a possible race or supreme being of advanced intelligence who could create this simulation for us: “The theory seems to be based on the assumption that ‘superminds’ would do things in much the same way as we would do them.” [22] When reflecting on Musk and others who hold his beliefs, Millican mused, “If they think this world is a simulation, then why do they think the superminds – who are outside the simulation – would be constrained by the same sorts of thoughts and methods that we are?” [23]

However, Professor Millican did find the idea intriguing: “It is an interesting idea, and it’s healthy to have some crazy ideas. You don’t want to censor ideas according to whether they seem sensible or not because sometimes important new advances will seem crazy to start with. You never know when good ideas may come from thinking outside the box. This Matrix thought-experiment is actually a bit like some ideas of Descartes and Berkeley, hundreds of years ago.” [24]

As a final thought, Millican said: “Even if there turns out to be nothing in it, the fact that you have got into the habit of thinking crazy things could mean that at some point you are going to think of something that initially may seem rather way out, but turns out not to be crazy at all.” [25]

 

References:

[1] C. Moskowitz, “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?” Scientific American, April 7, 2016. Available: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-we-living-in-a-computer-simulation.

[2] [1], supra.

[3] P. Ball, “We might live in a computer program but it may not matter,” BBC.com, Sept. 4, 2016.  Available: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160901-we-might-live-in-a-computer-program-but-it-may-not-matter.

[4] [3], supra.

[5] C. Gohd, “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?  Elon Musk Thinks so,” Futurism, April 13, 2017.  Available: https://futurism.com/are-we-living-in-a-computer-simulation-elon-musk-thinks-so.

[6] [5], supra.

[7] [5], supra.

[8] [5], supra.

[9] [3], supra.

[10] R. Skopec, “Coding by Quantum Entanglement Entropy,” Intl. Journal of Nanotechnology in Medicine & Engineering, Vol. 2, Issue 4, May 2017. Available: https://www.arjonline.org/papers/arjb/v3-i1/4.pdf

[11] C.E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379-423, 623-656, July, October, 1948. Available: http://math.harvard.edu/~ctm/home/text/others/shannon/entropy/entropy.pdf

[12] J. Burns, “Elon Musk and Friends Are Spending Millions to Break Out of the Matrix,” Forbes, Oct. 13, 2016. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetwburns/2016/10/13/elon-musk-and-friends-are-spending-millions-to-break-out-of-the-matrix/#6484d2835ce1

[13] T. Friend, “Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny,” The New Yorker, Oct. 10, 2016.  Available: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/10/sam-altmans-manifest-destiny

[14] [12], supra.

[15] [12], supra.

[16] R. Cellan-Jones, “Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind,” BBC News, Dec. 2, 2014.  Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540

[17] [1], supra.

[18] [12], supra.

[19] [12], supra.

[20] R. Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Penguin Publishing Group (2005).

[21] [12], supra.

[22] A. Boult, “We are ‘almost definitely’ living in a Matrix-style simulation, claims Elon Musk,” The Telegraph, June 3, 2016.  Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/06/03/we-are-almost-definitely-living-in-a-matrix-style-simulation-cla.

[23] [22], supra.

[24] [22], supra.

[25] [22], supra.

 

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