frame from The Matrix. The movie popularized the
idea of living in a simulated world.
from the Curator's Office:
We All Just Living in a Video Game?
(7/08) The idea that the world around isn't real,
but is actually a game-like simulation has been around for a while.
It was popularized by the blockbuster 1999 movie The Matrix,
and its two sequels. Certainly anybody that has played any simulation
type game, from Halo 2 to The Sims has probably,
briefly entertained such thoughts. It took a real genius like
Nick Bostrom to suggest that such a thing just wasn't a possibility,
but maybe a probability.
Nick Bostrom was born in Sweden in 1973. In college
he studied physics, computational neuroscience, mathematical logic,
and artificial intelligence. For a while he tried to be a stand-up
comedian before getting his Phd from the London School of Economics.
After that he worked as a British Academy Postdoctoral Research
Fellow in the philosophy department. In 1998 he co-founded the
World Transhumanist Association and is also currently the
Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford
So, Mr. Bostrom is admittedly a very smart guy.
He also has some really way out ideas . When he first started
expressing some of his thinking, people argued it wasn't real
science or philosophy, but science fiction. As time has gone by,
however, academia has started to accept that some of the concerns
he's raising are likely to become real issues we'll need to ponder
Probably one of his most talked about ideas came
out of an article he wrote for Philosophical Quarterly in 2003.
(You can read the original paper at http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html).
The article was picked up by many popular newscasts and interview
shows where his views were a bit misinterpreted as "Here's a guy
that thinks there is a twenty percent chance that we are living
in a computer simulation." Mr. Bostrom's views are a little more
complicated and nuanced than that, however, and I think it is
worth my trying to lay out his ideas in simple terms while still
trying to do justice to his argument.
Let me start by saying that we're not talking about
something like Second Life (http://secondlife.com/)
where all the members are aware of their participation in a virtual
world. Bostrom's ideas suggest that our entire universe might
be a simulation run by some future superhuman society and we haven't
Let's first start by saying that Bostrom is a supporter
of trying to bring about a post-human world. Now this sounds terrible
- as if he is an evil genius planning the demise of man in favor
of some superhuman race. In a sense that is what he is talking
about; however, you need to think about this as the next step
in human evolution that we all will be taking, not just a privileged
few. It's not human evolution based on natural selection, but
instead we are evolving ourselves by using our technology to increase
our lifespan, health and intelligence. Much of this is already
underway with new drugs, medical procedures, etc. However, in
the long run for Bostrum it includes such exotic items as augmenting
our brains with electronic implants to increase intelligence or
even uploading our minds into a computer. He argues that a post-human
society will have the tremendous computing capacity needed to
do these feats. While Bostrom and the members of Transhumanist
Association would like to see this shift to post-human society
happen sooner rather than later, in his thinking it will inevitably
happen at some point in our future if we do not accidentally destroy
ourselves along the way.
philosopher, and really smart guy, Nick Bostrom (Licensed
under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0)
Bostrom argues that eventually post-humans will
have computing capacity enough to simulate an entire universe
down to the level of neurons in the human mind. Interestingly
enough, critics of Bostrom's arguments usually admit that this
part of his analysis is the most solid: Given enough time, there
will eventually be enough computational power to do this. The
humans in such a simulation would be conscious and unaware that
they were not real humans, but human emulations in a giant computer.
Three Alternative Futures
From the way Bostrom sees it there are three alternatives
possible in the future. One - humans will go extinct before they
can transition to post-human society. Two - a post-human society
will not have an interest in running simulations of their ancestors.
Three - we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
The first unpleasant alternative is perhaps a lot
more likely than it seems. Some scientists have pegged the possibility
of us making it to the end of this century without going extinct
as only 50%. Bostrom himself thinks there is probably at least
a 20% chance that we will do ourselves in through the misuse of
our own technology. (He finds nanotechnology of particular concern.
A madman or terrorist group getting hold of nanotechnology and
creating self-reproducing micro machines designed to kill all
life is a particularly scary vision).
The second possibility if we do survive is that
post-humans will have the computing power to run ancestor simulations,
but not the will. Perhaps post-humans will find other ways to
entertain themselves or do research. Perhaps they will find it
ethically problematic to create conscious beings in a simulation.
Perhaps they will run such simulations, but only a handful.
If neither of the above two possibilities are true,
however, Bostrom concludes that we are most likely one of the
simulated societies. Why? If post-humans run such simulations
in large numbers the ratio of real to virtual universes would
be very high. For example, if one human society produced a post-human
society that then ran a million simulations, the ratio of simulated
universes to real universes would be a million to one. Then what
are the chances of our world being in the real universe
as opposed to the simulation? A million to one.
Because there are three possibilities and it is
hard to say what the probability is of any one of them Mr. Bostrom
(going with his gut) gives the last alternative a twenty percent
chance of being true.
If you stay with this final possibility and flesh
it out a little bit, the thing gets even stranger. If the base
post-human society (the one in the real universe) has enough computing
power, there is the possibility that the societies' simulations
might be able to achieve post-human status too and run their own
simulations. You could get a whole chain of simulations inside
of simulations, one society on top of another (For a fictional
look at this idea check out http://qntm.org/?responsibility).
Of course, if the base post-human society doesn't have enough
computing power to allow its simulations to do simulations of
their own they might decide to pull the plug just as their simulants
reached post-human status - Interestingly just about where we
are in our history…
if we are living in a video game it isn't Destroy All
Bostrom's Simulation Argument has its critics, of
course. They cite a number of problems his theory, but the most
persuasive I think is something Bostrom freely admits: The twenty
percent is just a gut feeling. Of the three possibilities in the
argument it may be that there is a fifty percent chance we destroy
ourselves and a forty-nine percent chance that post-humans will
choose not to run ancestor simulations, leaving only a one-percent
chance that they will and we might be one of their creations.
Of course the idea that we will destroy ourselves
isn't very attractive either, so let's hope things don't go that
way. Let's look at the other possibility - Post humans don't run
The general argument is that post-humans will be
fascinated by their past and will try and explore it through simulations.
Indeed, simulation games in our current society are very popular.
The Sims, the Civilization series, Grand Theft
Auto, and SimEarth are just a few of the hundreds of
titles you can buy. If post-human society is capable of providing
post-humans with the equivalent of desktop computers that can
simulate the entire universe, how many post-humans could resist
However, you can argue that since post-humans will
be, by definition, so very different from us, it is hard to predict
what type of research and entertainment they will choose to conduct.
They may find other endeavors more engaging. We just don't know.
Even if they have an interest in running these kinds of simulations,
perhaps they will have legal strictures against creating conscious,
simulated beings. They may find it ethically a problem to create
a being capable of feeling pain just for the purpose of research
or entertainment. (Of course a counter-argument to this might
be that a post-human might be so superior to us that they would
no more consider us an intelligent entity than we would consider
a character in the current version of The Sims to be intelligent.)
Even if a post-human wanted to run ancestor simulations,
though, he might not need conscious entities to do it. It might
be possible to build an accurate human emulation without consciousness
(as if we know what consciousness is anyway).
So we don't really have a grip on what the chances
are that post-humans will run simulations with conscious beings.
Without that the Bostrum twenty percent guess is just that. Can
we ever directly tell if we are living in a simulated world? Bostrum
thinks not and argues it would well be within the capability of
the simulator's creators to hide this from us.
for the Machine Under the Ghost
It occurs to me that if you really take Bostrum's
ideas seriously, it might well be worth trying to find evidence
of his ideas looking at the structure of the universe. I admit
that Bostrum's right, those creating the simulation could hide
the mechanism of the simulation from us, but suppose they didn't
Schrödinger in 1927 - Don't loan him your cat.
I was a software engineer for a number of years
and have studied the techniques used in writing simulation programs.
One of the rules about such programs is that the more detail you
can put into a simulated world, the more accurate the simulation.
The more detail, however, the more computer power that will be
needed to run the simulation. Some of our most seriously detailed
simulations that we use today, like predicting what will happen
when an atomic bomb is set off, requires the world's biggest,
One trick programmers use to reduce the workload
in a simulation is to avoid doing calculations for things that
are not observed or do not matter to the outcome of the simulation.
This sounds suspiciously to me like the idea of wave collapse
in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. According
to this interpretation, an atom, molecule or photon (or really
almost anything) is a probability wave until it is observed and
until that point can exist in multiple different states and locations.
This strange feature of quantum physics has bothered physicists
and philosophers for years. It doesn't make sense. For example,
take the thought experiment proposed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger
involving a cat placed into a sealed box and hooked to a device
that will release poison gas based on some random quantum event
(like the decay of radioactive material). Some quantum theories
seem to suggest that until somebody (or something) looks inside
the box to see if the cat is dead or alive, the cat will be both
- a mixture of states only resolved by observation.
Is it possible that this quirk in reality is just
a trick used by some post-human programmer to save processing
time on the computer that runs the simulation of our universe?
Maybe there is no need to use the processor time to simulate whether
the cat is dead or alive until somebody looks at it.
Well, I'd better stop here before I'm accused of
quantum mysticism. This is deeper philosophical water than I care
to swim in, but perhaps this thought would be worth pondering
by people who understand quantum theory better than I.
in a Simulated World
What if we are living in a simulated world? How
do we change our behavior? Bostrom argues that we shouldn't. We
need not go crazy. It is knowledge about the world, not the end
of the world:
Even if we are in a simulation, the best methods
of predicting what will happen next are still the familiar ones
- extrapolation of past trends, scientific modelling and common
sense. To a first approximation, if you thought you were in a
simulation, you should get on with your life in much the same
way as if you were convinced that you were leading a non-simulated
life at the "bottom" level of reality.
Bostrom is right. The knowledge that we are emulated
humans wouldn't really change anything. We should continue doing
the best we can do in this world. Being a simulant doesn't change
the golden rule or mean that we shouldn't be compassionate and
caring to others.
If someday we finally do reach a post-human state
of technology that would allow us to create simulations of the
universe which include fully conscious human emulations, should
we do so? Will we do so? I don't know if we will, but if we choose
to, according to Bostrom's argument, it almost automatically means
that we are simulated human emulations ourselves.
Well, one final thought. Hopefully if we are being
simulated the post-human in charge of our universe is playing
something gentle like The Sims: Vacation, not Destroy
All Humans II.
screen shot from The Sims 3. Is this what our world
looks like to some post-human race?
Copyright Lee Krystek
2008. All Rights Reserved.