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Sunday, 25 March 2012

Living in a Simulation - Some Thoughts from Within

It was about 2007 when I first encountered Professor Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument.

You are well advised to read the original argument rather than my digested version of it, but basically it suggests that, providing it is possible to create a conscious entity in a computer simulation, and if humanity ever achieves the technological ability to run such simulations, and if humanity chooses to, then the overwhelming likelihood is that you are a conscious entity in a computer simulation.

The first condition is still a big IF. However, the second one possibly only involves humanity and our technology continuing on their current path for another few decades. The third condition I would argue is almost a certainty.

Ever since I first met this idea it has intrigued me. If it could be shown to be true, how should that affect the way I live my life? Should I try to be more interesting and entertaining, to decrease the risk of being edited out? Should I try to make contact with my programming overlords?

And might there be a way of working out for sure that our universe was really inside a computer program?

Putting myself in the place of the simulation designers, but using the computer technology available to me today, I tried to imagine what constraints or short cuts might be evident to the inhabitants of my creation, and these three points occurred to me.

  1. The constraints of working in a digital computer would mean it was easier if there was a minimum possible size for such quantities like length, time, etc.
  2. Likewise, it would be nice if it was possible to average the effects of the basic components of the universe, so that a wall, say, could be treated as a surface without needing to calculate the movements of all its component particles.
  3. There would be a largest possible number.

Now as it happens, Quantum Mechanics says that there is a smallest possible value for time and length: the Planck time and Planck length, respectively. They are very, very small: the Plank time is 5.4 x 10-44 seconds, and the Plank length is a mere 1.6 x 10-35 meters. Nevertheless, this feature of the Universe is not intuitive.

And the properties of large objects can be calculated without having to consider all their component particles, which is one of the reasons we could do Physics before the particles were discovered.

The maximum number idea was a non-starter though, as everyone knows about infinity, and some people even know about the many different infinities. It was while hoping to learn more about the fascinating world of transfinite numbers that I recently watched the BBC program To Infinity and Beyond. In the middle of a series of interviews with mathematicians, I almost fell off my chair when one Dr Doron Zeilberger said that he didn't believe in infinity. No, he thinks that if you keep counting indefinitely, you eventually reach a maximum number, after which you get back to zero. The maximum number would be very, very big, but he believes it does exist. I don't know if he is alone in this view, but the fact that any serious mathematician could hold it I find very intriguing.

If Bostrom's Simulation Argument is valid, then its discovery must surely be a landmark in the running of a simulation, perhaps hastening the point when the simulation ceases to be of interest to its creators. I would guess that the 'turn off the program' point is when the bulk of humanity's behaviour becomes influenced by the knowledge of the true reality. If so, publicly speculating on the Simulation Argument might not be quite the good idea it seemed when I started this blog post.

For which I apologise; although if it makes me more interesting...