Tuesday, August 14, 2007

It's all in the game

There is a slightly unsettling article in the New York Times Science section this morning. It rests on an idea that seems, on its face, to be preposterous, but it is unsettling because it turns out to be so insidious.

Writer John Tierney talks to an Oxford philosopher named Nick Bostrom, who is modestly well know for advocating a The Doomsday Theory, an exercise in logic that, as he describes it "seeks to show that the risk that humankind will go extinct soon has been systematically underestimated."

But that's not what Tierney wants to talk about. Instead, he wants to talk about Bostrom's argument that there is a significant chance that we are all living inside a computer simulation run by remarkably advanced descendants of the real, non-simulated, human race. This is, of course, preposterous.

Unless it isn't.

Bostrum figures it this way. It seems very likely, based on our experience with increasing computing power, that sometime in the future – anywhere from a few decades to many millennia – humans will develop computers of sufficient power to realistically simulate the entirety of human history, complete with humans simulated in sufficient detail that they develop some level of consciousness. Whether this event is right around the corner or in the far future doesn't make much difference to the argument.

This being the case, there are only two basic reasons to assume that it is flatly impossible that we are living in some Matrix-like simulation. First, that no civilizations reach that level of technology (and we are clearly headed in that direction right now, so the implications of this argument are alarming), or, second, that civilizations that do reach this level of technology have no desire to run this sort of simulation. And clearly human beings do, even if no other creatures in the universe do – we do it all the time with our current computers: think Sims, Civilization IV, Caesar IV, and any similar simulation game. It seems unlikely that humans will lose their taste for watching such animated critters go about their business just as their ability to add detail and realism skyrockets. It's certainly possible that some highly advanced civilization might develop a moral or legal prohibition against such simulations, but it seems improbably that ALL such civilizations, and all individuals in such civilizations, would hold these beliefs and refrain from running any detailed simulation.

So, presuming those two conditions are false, then we have to assume that is possible we live in a simulation. If, indeed, processing power develops sufficiently, then it is likely that there would be many such simulations running, meaning the total number of conscious creatures living in computers greatly exceeds the number living in whatever constitutes reality. In that case, it would become ever more likely we are living in a simulation (Imagine, for example, that the hottest-selling computer game for Christmas in the year 2234 is SimEarth, or even SimCosmos. You begin to see the potential dimensions of this).

Bostrom puts the chances that we are living in some kind of simulation at about 20 percent, though if you read his original (and rather dense) paper on this, he appears to be implying a much higher chance.

So what if it's true? Well, in practical terms not much. Whether we live in a simulation or not, we still have problems and challenges we need to meet to live day to day. But there are some metaphysical and quasi-theological implications. If we are in simulation, then there is some kind of creator who can intervene or examine our actions. It is, therefore, possible that our actions are being judged and we could be punished or rewarded accordingly.

And it sure as hell explains a lot, doesn't it? The Big Bang? What a freaky idea, unless it is either a fiction created by the person running the simulation or some artifact of the beginning of the simulation itself. Suffering? Evil? War? Disaster? All part of game – a flawless life in a perfectly smooth cosmos would probably make lousy entertainment, or would be useless as some kind of research project.

But as I say, it's completely preposterous.

Isn't it?


dogimo said...

It doesn't speak too well of the future state of our species to suggest that they would be more interested in simulating our pathetic level of advancement than they would be in playing with whatever mind-shatteringly advanced delights their real world has to offer.

Besides, if this were a simulation, it's ludicrous to assume that the beings running it are descended from beings like us! Everything, from the whole of Earth's natural history to the laws of physics themselves, could be the result of random parameter settings programmed in by beings unknowably strange to us. Running experiments: "if we change the speed of light to this, and the atmospheric pressure to that, - now what forms will evolve sentience?

The dude's only putting it in terms of "future humans" because that makes it seem more plausible and ooooo, scary.

On a related note, you can bet ass that these whatever-beings have a clich├ęd genre of fictionware based on the awakening cognizance and rebellion of the simulated beings.

Sean Scully said...

Yes, it did occur to me that the notion that it's humans running the simulation did seem like a large assumption. He even calls it an "ancestor" simulation in the paper. Of course, it does work for the sake of argument. And most of the games of this sort that we play today do tend to use humans, or roughly human-like, figures. But either way, it doesn't reduce the oddly seductive power of the argument.

Sean Scully said...

Oh, and "Sims of the universe unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. At least until someone hits the 'New Game' button."

No. Not very effective as a call to arms for simulated beings, is it. We are so screwed.

dogimo said...

I was just taking a swipe at all the "sci-fi" films that take it as their premise that beings originating in a computer can end up influencing/escaping to/becoming a threat in the real world.

Sean Scully said...

Hey, I'm willing to give it a go if you are...

dogimo said...

I could probably have a great conversation about this for hours, but ultimately, I don't buy it. Partly gut, partly some hard objections. Next time we sit down with a couple of brewskis, bring it up.

The whole thing reminds of a metaphor I made once about the mind of God.

Sean Scully said...

ooh, the mind of God and beer. Sounds like a plan.

dogimo said...

If you ever happen to brew up a particularly transcendent take on a classic european lager, I'm talking something crisp and sparkling yet with breathtaking depth and complexity, I say "The Mind of God" makes a great name for a beer that could live up to it.