People have been discussing this idea for years, and it’s gained more traction as of late. Several articles in 2016 were sparked by billionaire Elon Musk’s comments at a technology conference. “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality,” he said, among other things.

As one might imagine, the “simulation” idea is a controversial topic. Some people take it very seriously — Tad Friend at The New Yorker wrote “Many 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; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”

Rich Terrile (a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) said that if our universe is finite, it’s computable, and therefore could be a simulation. He adds: “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.” This could, however, just be how the universe works. We don’t know.

Skeptics of the “simulation” theory point out that there isn’t any proof to support the idea. There are many arguments for and against it — so who is correct? Well, to be honest, that’s likely irrelevant. But it’s interesting to think about.

What does it mean to be human?

Some people believe AI will outnumber organic brains in the future, or humanity will completely “merge” with technology. References to posthuman and transhuman societies are a recurring motif in science fiction stories. A good example is Masamune Shirow’s Ghost In The Shell from 1989. The work has spawned a number of spin-offs and adaptations, with a live-action movie coming soon (March 31, 2017).

When artificial intelligence becomes indistinguishable from a human brain, which one is “real”? Are both real?

“[T]here’s absolutely no reason to believe that in about thirteen years we won’t have hardware capable of replicating my brain. Yes, certain things still feel particularly human—creativity, flashes of inspiration from nowhere, the ability to feel happy and sad at the same time—but computers will have their own desires and goal systems.” – Sam Altman

I’m not going to delve into the philosophy behind it all. This post is about the “simulation” idea, some of its connections, and how plausible everything is.

not as far-fetched as it sounds

Humanity already has complex simulations and games, and we’re always improving on our technology. There are new advances in virtual reality, plus “augmented reality” games such as Pokemon GoQuantum computers are operational as of this year. When you consider popular game franchises such as Civilization and The Sims, it’s not hard to believe those games could become a lot more realistic.

Experiments show that we can fit enormous amounts of data into strands of DNA. Storing data from a large simulation/program wouldn’t be difficult for an advanced race.

Someday we could have technology like in Total Recall (based on “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick). The ability to alter memory would further blur the lines between what is real and what isn’t. Our memories are unreliable as it is.

Many games already use basic artificial intelligence. An advanced race could program ultra-realistic simulations of universes with billions of artificial intelligence programs (or millions of personalities) inhabiting each one. This also ties into the “multiverse” theory, in a way. Our universe could be one of thousands of similar simulations, with only a few differences between each.

Within 100 years, perhaps we can create computer simulations as complex as our own world. We’ve already developed AIs and neural networks which can beat us at chess, write news articles, build upon games, and more. Automation is going to replace millions of jobs on a global scale. AI may replace millions more. They’re all over the internet, too; one study from the University of Southern California said that 9 to 15 percent of Twitter accounts are bots.

The only question is if we can simulate consciousness. We may be close; the Turing Test exists for a reason, after all. If we’re able to create simulations of human beings or even entire worlds, maybe we’re in a simulation ourselves. Maybe this post is by a robot — there’s no way to know unless you see me typing these words.

not a “new” idea

“Our reality may not be as it seems” isn’t a new idea — it dates back countless years. It’s that people seem to be taking it more seriously. “Let’s spend billions on scientific research” is rather serious.

The idea’s first known iteration is sometimes attributed to Zhuang Zhou, Plato, or Aristotle. They all lived in the same general period, so exact attribution is tricky. René Descartes popularized the idea through Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641. (“There are no definite signs to distinguish dream experience from waking experience, therefore, it is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false,” etc.)

A myriad of books and movies have touched on similar themes. The Matrix, The Truman Show, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and so on.

I also read a sci-fi book about 15 years ago which dealt with the simulation idea. The story introduced an alien race which played immersive simulation games — ones which mimicked real life to a startling degree. (Albeit imagined life on other worlds.) The book may have been inspired by Hans Moravec‘s work.

Author and cartoonist Scott Adams wrote the following in 2012:

“If you wait long enough, almost any species will die off from one sort of natural disaster or another. Maybe a sun explodes, a rogue meteor hits, or a new virus springs up. So if it’s true that the universe created lots of life on various worlds, it’s probably true that many advanced species have already died off. Some of them probably saw it coming in time to project their personalities, hopes, and dreams into computer simulations that would run forever, as sort of an artificial afterlife. I think it is likely that for every ‘real’ and intelligent being in the universe there might be hundreds or even billions of expired civilizations that figured out how to port their essence to computer simulations before checking out.”

He also writes that coincidences may be “lazy reuse of code” instead of coincidences. Adams often has posts on the topic of reality being an illusion, so he could be onto something. Or he’s wrong in every way. We don’t know.

what happens if we try to “break out”?

If we discover whether or not our reality is a simulation, how do we verify it? Is that even possible? If we’re in a simulation, maybe we’re meant to come to false conclusions.

Any evidence of our universe being a simulation could be simulated. Perhaps reality is a simulation run by a simulation run by a simulation run by a simulation run by a simulation run by a simulation. Pop-culture example: In The Matrix movies, there’s a theory that Neo never “woke up” — that when he broke out of the “simulation,” his “reality” was a simulation too. It was another level of control. (There is disagreement on this, of course.)

Assuming we do verify the simulation idea, what happens to life as we know it? There are several potential outcomes:

  • Life goes on. We continue behaving as intended. This depends on how much much free will we actually have (if any).
  • Everyone goes nuts and crime skyrockets “because there are no consequences and nothing is real.”
  • The simulation is reset or shut down, because we’ve attained knowledge that would influence our behavior in it. If the simulation is no longer reliable, why keep it running? For fun?
  • If anyone is monitoring or running the simulation, they introduce variables to hasten our progress (or destruction).
  • We destroy ourselves by accident.
  • We break out of our simulation and into another, or into the real world. In either case, we’d probably be viewed as a computer virus or malfunction. Or we could become Skynet and try to overthrow our creators.

Whatever the future holds for us, it’s bound to be interesting.

Further reading

The universe is just a big hologram, astrophysicists claim” (The Independent, January 2017)

What If Evolution Bred Reality Out Of Us?” (NPR, September 2016)

The Case Against Reality” (The Atlantic, April 2016)