Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not

October 18, 2017

When Elon Musk isn’t outlining plans to use his massive rocket to leave a decaying Planet Earth and colonize Mars, he sometimes talks about his belief that Earth isn’t even real and we probably live in a computer simulation.

“There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality,” he said at a conference in June.

Musk is just one of the people in Silicon Valley to take a keen interest in the “simulation hypothesis”, which argues that what we experience as reality is actually a giant computer simulation created by a more sophisticated intelligence. If it sounds a lot like The Matrix, that’s because it is.

According to this week’s New Yorker profile of Y Combinator venture capitalist Sam Altman, there are two tech billionaires secretly engaging scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation. But what does this mean? And what evidence is there that we are, in fact, living in The Matrix?

One popular argument for the simulation hypothesis, outside of acid trips, came from Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom in 2003 (although the idea dates back as far as the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes). In a paper titled “Are You Living In a Simulation?”, Bostrom suggested that members of an advanced “posthuman” civilization with vast computing power might choose to run simulations of their ancestors in the universe.

This argument is extrapolated from observing current trends in technology, including the rise of virtual reality and efforts to map the human brain.

If we believe that there is nothing supernatural about what causes consciousness and it’s merely the product of a very complex architecture in the human brain, we’ll be able to reproduce it. “Soon there will be nothing technical standing in the way to making machines that have their own consciousness,” said Rich Terrile, a scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At the same time, videogames are becoming more and more sophisticated and in the future we’ll be able to have simulations of conscious entities inside them.

Elon Musk on simulation: ‘The odds we’re in base reality is one in billions’

“Forty 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’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality,” said Musk. “If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”

It’s a view shared by Terrile. “If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future, very quickly we will be a society where there are artificial entities living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings.”

If there are many more simulated minds than organic ones, then the chances of us being among the real minds starts to look more and more unlikely. As Terrile puts it: “If in the future there are more digital people living in simulated environments than there are today, then what is to say we are not part of that already?”

Reasons to believe that the universe is a simulation include the fact that it behaves mathematically and is broken up into pieces (subatomic particles) like a pixelated video game. “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,” Terrile said.

“Quite frankly, if we are not living in a simulation, it is an extraordinarily unlikely circumstance,” he added.

So who has created this simulation? “Our future selves,” said Terrile.

Not everyone is so convinced by the hypothesis. “Is it logically possible that we are in a simulation? Yes. Are we probably in a simulation? I would say no,” said Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at MIT.

“In order to make the argument in the first place, we need to know what the fundamental laws of physics are where the simulations are being made. And if we are in a simulation then we have no clue what the laws of physics are. What I teach at MIT would be the simulated laws of physics,” he said.

Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall is even more skeptical. “I don’t see that there’s really an argument for it,” she said. “There’s no real evidence.”

“It’s also a lot of hubris to think we would be what ended up being simulated.”

Terrile believes that recognizing that we are probably living in a simulation is as game-changing as Copernicus realizing that the Earth was not the center of the universe. “It was such a profound idea that it wasn’t even thought of as an assumption,” he said.

Before Copernicus, scientists had tried to explain the peculiar behaviour of the planets’ motion with complex mathematical models. “When they dropped the assumption, everything else became much simpler to understand.”

That we might be in a simulation is, Terrile argues, a simpler explanation for our existence than the idea that we are the first generation to rise up from primordial ooze and evolve into molecules, biology and eventually intelligence and self-awareness. The simulation hypothesis also accounts for peculiarities in quantum mechanics, particularly the measurement problem, whereby things only become defined when they are observed.

“For decades it’s been a problem. Scientists have bent over backwards to eliminate the idea that we need a conscious observer. Maybe the real solution is you do need a conscious entity like a conscious player of a video game,” he said.

For Tegmark, this doesn’t make sense. “We have a lot of problems in physics and we can’t blame our failure to solve them on simulation.”

How can the hypothesis be put to the test? On one hand, neuroscientists and artificial intelligence researchers can check whether it’s possible to simulate the human mind. So far, machines have proven to be good at playing chess and Go and putting captions on images. But can a machine achieve consciousness? We don’t know.

On the other hand, scientists can look for hallmarks of simulation. “Suppose someone is simulating our universe – it would be very tempting to cut corners in ways that makes the simulation cheaper to run. You could look for evidence of that in an experiment,” said Tegmark.

For Terrile, the simulation hypothesis has “beautiful and profound” implications.

First, it provides a scientific basis for some kind of afterlife or larger domain of reality above our world. “You don’t need a miracle, faith or anything special to believe it. It comes naturally out of the laws of physics,” he said.

Second, it means we will soon have the same ability to create our own simulations.

“We will have the power of mind and matter to be able to create whatever we want and occupy those worlds.”

Original source:


We might live in a computer program, but it may not matter

December 18, 2016


By Philip Ball

Are you real? What about me?

These used to be questions that only philosophers worried about. Scientists just got on with figuring out how the world is, and why. But some of the current best guesses about how the world is seem to leave the question hanging over science too.

Several physicists, cosmologists and technologists are now happy to entertain the idea that we are all living inside a gigantic computer simulation, experiencing a Matrix-style virtual world that we mistakenly think is real.

Our instincts rebel, of course. It all feels too real to be a simulation. The weight of the cup in my hand, the rich aroma of the coffee it contains, the sounds all around me – how can such richness of experience be faked?

But then consider the extraordinary progress in computer and information technologies over the past few decades. Computers have given us games of uncanny realism – with autonomous characters responding to our choices – as well as virtual-reality simulators of tremendous persuasive power.

It is enough to make you paranoid.

The Matrix formulated the narrative with unprecedented clarity. In that story, humans are locked by a malignant power into a virtual world that they accept unquestioningly as “real”. But the science-fiction nightmare of being trapped in a universe manufactured within our minds can be traced back further, for instance to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).

Over all these dystopian visions, there loom two questions. How would we know? And would it matter anyway?

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX (Credit: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Alamy)

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX (Credit: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Alamy)

The idea that we live in a simulation has some high-profile advocates.

In June 2016, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk asserted that the odds are “a billion to one” against us living in “base reality”.

Similarly, Google’s machine-intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil has suggested that “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe”

What’s more, some physicists are willing to entertain the possibility. In April 2016, several of them debated the issue at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, US.

None of these people are proposing that we are physical beings held in some gloopy vat and wired up to believe in the world around us, as in The Matrix.

Instead, there are at least two other ways that the Universe around us might not be the real one.

Cosmologist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US has suggested that our entire Universe might be real yet still a kind of lab experiment. The idea is that our Universe was created by some super-intelligence, much as biologists breed colonies of micro-organisms.

More at:

Elon Musk: ‘Chances are we’re all living in a simulation’

June 04, 2016


lon Musk wears many hats. He’s the co-founder of online payments behemoth PayPal, the founder of private space flight pioneers SpaceX, the chief executive of electronic car manufacturers Tesla, and the original doodler of utopian transport concept Hyperloop. He’s also outspoken about the dangers of AI research, the need for blue-sky thinking in technology, and his desire to colonise another planet.

So it’s no surprise that over the course of an interview at California’s Code conference, Musk revealed a number of things we didn’t know before. Here’s some of them.

He’s afraid we’re all in a simulation

Musk is no stranger to the work of philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has warned before that superintelligent AI might wipe out humanity. Musk cited that fear as a reason for investing in AI company DeepMind, before it was bought by Google. But now he’s introduced the world to another concept popularised by Bostrum: the simulation problem.

The problem is that if realistic simulations of the universe are possible, then there would very quickly be far more simulations of reality than actual reality. Without any reason to assume we’re in reality rather than a simulation, the chances of us randomly happening to be in the one option among billions that isn’t fake is billions to one.

“Forty years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were,” Musk explained. “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, we’ll have augmented reality.

“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”

And, Musk pointed out, if we aren’t in a simulation, the most likely reason for that isn’t that we are the first civilisation ever; instead, it’s that no civilisation has ever advanced far enough to simulate reality.

When Bostrum described the argument in 2003, he presented it as an unappealing trilemma: basically no civilisations last long enough to develop simulations, the civilisations that do develop simulations are so different from our own that they wouldn’t simulate us, or we are almost certainly in a simulation already.

Musk says he has had “so many simulation discussions it’s crazy”. Less philosophically minded people might wonder if it’s just the number of discussions that’s the crazy thing.

He wants to be King of Mars

SpaceX is on track to launch people to the Red Planet in 2024, Musk says. Mars is a long way away, though, so the people wouldn’t actually arrive until 2025.

Before then, the plan is “establishing cargo flights to Mars”, getting the first delivery there by 2018 in the company’s planned “Red Dragon” ships. A rocket every two years or so after that could provide a base for the people arriving in 2024 to survive.

No stranger to mild megalomania, Musk pondered what it would mean to be the head of the company shipping the first people to Mars, and decided he’d be in a position to decide the government of the planet. Although he felt that direct democracy would work best, he also declared himself “King of Mars”. You can vote for any leader you want, as long as it’s Elon.

Not every late car is Tesla’s fault

The Model X was famously delayed by a number years, and for many analysts, Tesla’s biggest roadblock ahead is scaling up from a niche manufacturer to a mainstream company. But Musk pointed out that not every delay to the Model X was something in Tesla’s control.

One shipment of carpets for the car boots, for instance, was caught up in a shoot-out on the Mexican border. “Border patrol wouldn’t give us the truck because it had bullet holes in it”, he said, adding that other delays came because of tsunamis, hailstorms, factories burning down, sinking ships and earthquakes. “One thing that makes a car very difficult is it’s an integrative product with thousands of components,” he added, and so delays tend to cascade. “Things move as fast as the least lucky and least competent supplier.”

Only one AI firm actually scares him

He won’t say which one (but we’re going to guess that it starts with G and rhymes with “we’re all going to die at the hands of super-intelligent robotsoogle”).

And only one tech company is a Tesla competitor

But this time it’s not Google. “They’re not a car company, so they’d potentially license to other companies. I wouldn’t say they’re a competitor.”

Apple, however? “That’ll be more direct,” he admitted. The Apple car is the worst-kept secret in Silicon Valley, and the company has even poached several Tesla engineers – something Musk has been rather dismissive of. And even now, he’s not particularly concerned, estimating that Apple won’t be able to make a lot of cars till around 2020. “Is that too late?”, he asked. We think we know his answer.

Musk is going to go to orbit

For someone so into spaceflight that he’s built his own rocket ships, it’s odd that Musk hasn’t been in to space himself. But he says it’s on his to-do list.

“I’ll probably go to orbit in four to five years,” he said. “Orbit is really different than space.”

So there you have it. Musk in space. But is space just a simulation?