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Experts in the Media

Anders Sorman-Nilsson – The Daily Telegraph

Could life be a computer simulation we are living in?

Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson, National technology editor, The Daily Telegraph

February 24, 2018 12:00am

Ever had a sense of fate? The feeling that your life, against all the odds, has fallen into place, or out of it?

Or have you wondered how some unbelievably strange coincidence occurred, such as bumping into a friend in a remote place on the other side of the world? It happens. We’ve all had experiences like that.

But what if coincidences don’t exist or if fate, rather than being a mystical feeling of self-destiny, is actually a design and our life is being decided by someone else?

Is it possible that we will reach a point where we can recreate life? And if so, has someone already, deliberately, created us?

A 21st-century version of that idea is gaining momentum. Known as the simulation hypothesis, it holds that existence is like an advanced video game taking place inside one of billions of universe-wide simulations created by an advanced race or our significantly smarter descendants.

Numerous films have tackled the idea, including The Matrix, Edge Of Tomorrow, Source Code and Avatar.

And while the idea may seem far-fetched and contrary to everything we have been taught, some of the world’s most famous minds, from SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, all believe it is possible.

Two Silicon Valley billionaires are even said to be investing in a way to break out of the global simulation, and futurists say the idea will only continue to gain more followers, thanks to Musk’s vocal support.

While some sceptics and theoretical physicists have sought to disprove the idea, none have done enough to rule it out.

Simulation theory, or computationalism (which holds that thought is a form of computation), came to prominence for many in 2016 when Musk unexpectedly declared there was a “one in billion” chance humans are not living in a computer simulation, stunning his audience and the hosts at a Los Angeles technology conference.

But the concept behind simulation theory dates back to the 1600s, when French philosopher Rene Descartes argued an evil genius might be employing “all his energies in order to deceive me”.

The argument served to make people question more of their reality, and whether they could really trust their own senses, but modern philosophers take this idea to the next level.

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In addition to this, rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have drawn parallels with molecular biology and how the building blocks of life are structured.

Is it possible that we will reach a point where we can recreate life? And if so, has someone already, deliberately, created us?

Musk’s ideas are similar to those in Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom’s 2003 paper, Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?, which argues there will be “enormous amounts of computing power” in the future, and humans will use that computational grunt to create simulations of those who came before them.

“One thing that later generations might do with their super powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or people like their forebears,” Bostrom writes. “Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations.

“Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.”

In short, Bostrom argues it’s more likely that we are all part of a simulation rather than real blood-and-bone humans.

To argue the case, Musk also points to advances in modern video game technology and virtual reality as proof that we are on the path to creating our own simulations.

“The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong. Two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were,” he says.

“Now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.

“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now.

“So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds we’re in base reality is one in billions.

“Tell me what’s wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?”

Australian futurist Anders Sorman-Nilsson says Musk’s support for simulation theory won the idea an audience as many top technologists pay attention to whatever the entrepreneur backs.

“Marc Andreessen, a big Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said recently if you invest anything against Elon Musk, you’re investing against the future of humanity,” Sorman-Nilsson says. “There might be some merit to it.

“I’m not going to claim that aliens are driving our behaviour every day but could it be true that we live in some kind of matrix? It’s certainly a possibility and something we should all meditate on a little bit.”

Musk is hardly the only supporter of simulation theory, however.

Outspoken believers include MIT physicist Zohreh Davoudi, futurist Ray Kurzweil and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who says that just as mammals can’t perform trigonometry despite having DNA similar to humans, a similar life form could be much smarter than humans.

“It is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment,” he says. “So whatever the likelihood is — zero per cent, 1 per cent, 17, 42, no answer, I’m saying the day we learn that it is true, I will be the only one in the room saying ‘I’m not surprised’.”

It depends on the room. Two unnamed tech billionaires have reportedly hired scientists to figure out a way to break out of our simulation, if it exists.

Simulation theory has plenty of detractors too, of course. German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder argues the idea ignores the laws of nature, may have to “overthrow quantum mechanics” and its supporters don’t have enough evidence.

Oxford University researchers have used complex mathematics to back the theory that even recreating a small part of our reality would “require a memory built from more atoms than there are in the universe”.

But Sorman-Nilsson says the simulation hypothesis is likely to continue to lead discussions in Silicon Valley, where it feeds into ideas around artificial intelligence, “transhumanism” and even uploading minds to the cloud to live on after death.

“The technology field is moving into ideas of philosophy and meditation and religion and thought,” he says. “We could one day have our mental abilities extended by technology.”

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

That is, if our lives aren’t actually simulated inside a technological creation already, of course. However, Dr Tim Dean, from the University of Sydney’s philosophy department, says: “The philosophical point of sceptical theories like these isn’t to undermine our confidence in the world around us — after all, we have to get on with life to pay the rent or mortgage whether this is a simulation or not.

“It’s to challenge our misplaced confidence that we actually know what reality is like. So ultimately, sceptical ideas like simulation theory don’t make much difference to how we live.

“Some proponents of simulation theory also might have another motivation to support the idea. Like many people, they are troubled by death and would like to find some way into an afterlife.

“It can be reassuring to hold the belief that we might wake up outside the simulation, or break free from it while living.

“However, I’d call that — along with any belief in an afterlife — wishful thinking. It’s probably easier (and cheaper) to come to terms with death, as philosophers like Epicurus argued, rather than chase in vain after evidence that we live in a universal simulation.”