Saturday, June 18, 2016

You’re Not Really Reading This… You Just Think You Are

If you’ve been reading the science news over recent months, you’ve seen several very smart people come forward with a theory straight out of The Matrix: that we’re all part of a big computer simulation. It has to be the ultimate in parallel universe theories, which is where this blog comes in.

A favourite work of literary alt-history SF of mine that embraces this theme was 1998’s Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson.  In 1912, the “miracle” occurs, which sees Europe replaced overnight by an alien continent right out of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s only later in the book (spoiler alert!) that the characters realize that they are in fact, living in a computer simulation. 

Now some people appear to be taking the concept seriously. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, for one, while not saying we’re living in a simulated reality, has postulated what he calls his “simulation argument.” Bostrum’s argument, which for the moment assumes that there are other civilizations out there, attempts to show one of three possible outcomes for said civilization:

1.    All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature; 
2.    All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations; 
3.    Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.

If our universe is indeed a simulation, how would we know? Dr. Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of AI, interviewed before he died earlier this year, said there might be no way for us to be sure. “…unless the programmer has made some slips — if you notice that some laws of physics aren't quite right, if you find rounding-off errors, you might sense some of the grain of the computer showing through.”

Minsky added if this were so, that the universe might suddenly become very easy for us to understand and even change. Hmmm.

The potential for catching those little seeming slip-ups in the fabric of reality also seem to be attracting the attention of other people who’ve given this subject some thought. Donald D. Hoffman, a Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine,  is  among those trying to work his head around the idea that quantum physics assumes that if particles exist in an observer- independent state, then the answers we’re getting are all wrong. Or, suggests Hoffman, maybe the answers are right, but it’s our assumptions that need to be re-examined. By running his own simulations, Hoffman has concluded that the world around us nothing but an illusion. In short, reality according to Hoffman, is based on the observer.

Elon Musk, the one of the driving forces behind Paypal, and founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors, Solar City, and just about everything else that will happen in the future, told attendees at a recent conference that he too, believes that we are living in a simulated reality, something he likened to a video game but with really cool graphics. Musk argued that our technology is evolving at such an exponential rate that the line between virtual and base reality may soon cease to exist – if it hasn’t already. “There’s a one in billions chance that this is base reality,” Musk told his audience.

This opens the door to a much wider conversation and one that had already gone well past the limits of this rather abused blog.  The Buddhist faith, for example, holds that our world is but maya, an illusion that obscures the true nature of the world and that we need to cast off that illusion to see the world as it truly is. 

So maybe Musk and the others are onto something.  But it’s also fun to speculate, of course, and play reductio ad absurdum to an almost infinite level. What’s to say, for example that the universe of the being whose simulation we are, is in itself a simulation?  Perhaps we are residing in one of a series of parallel but simulated universes.

I know I’ll never look at Sim City quite the same way.

What’s Next?
First, the standard disclaimer of the Amateur Cosmologist: any errors in the above piece are strictly my own.

I have several things in the pipeline for the next few months. For starters, there’s my review of the penultimate book in The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Long Utopia.  Following this, I will also have a review of Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan, which I am just finishing reading.  In a happy synchronicity, I have also been able to recently binge-watch the first season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, so expect a review of that soon, as well.

Meanwhile, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

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