An MIT trained computer scientist and Silicon Valley video game designer gives 10 reasons for the “Simulation Hypothesis”: that our reality is a simulated, pixelated 3d world where we all have individual xp, levels, and quests run by some giant Artificial Intelligence
Recently, the idea that we may be living in a giant video game, or as it’s sometimes called, the Simulation Hypothesis, has gotten a lot of attention because of prominent figures like Elon Musk who have openly discussed the idea. As Virtual Reality technology has gotten more sophisticated, we are starting to contemplate virtual worlds like that of the omni-present Oasis in Ready Player One, soon to be a blockbuster movie directed by Stephen Spielberg.
Some like sci fi writer Philip K. Dick, believed strongly that we were living in a kind of simulation. Others, like futurist Ray Kurzweil, have popularized the idea of downloading our consciousness into a silicon based device, which would mean we are just digital information after all. Some, like Oxford lecturer Nick Bostrom, goes further and thinks we may in fact be artificially simulated consciousness inside such a simulation already!
Science Fiction Or Mysticism?
Like my first exposure to most great ideas, I discovered the Simulation Hypothesis through watching and reading too much science fiction.
The first time was during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where a holo-deck character realized that he was in a simulation and that some of the people in the simulation existed “out there” (in this case, out there was the rest of the Enterprise) and he wanted to go there, too! Was it possible that we were in a “holo-deck-like” space and that there was another world “out there”, I wondered?
Although this was only a passing thought at the time, it wasn’t until the movie the Matrix was released in 1999 that the idea grew in the popular consciousness. It occurred to me then that this kind of simulation could exist with or without the overlords that make this a nightmare scenario (in both the Matrix and Elon Musk’s version of the giant video game, there are super-intelligent overlords behind the simulation, in one case evolved machines and in another aliens!).
As a computer scientist and video game designer, I have to admit that this idea is not really that crazy. A civilization that implemented an advanced simulation like ours might be many thousands (even millions) of years ahead of us; it’s not that hard to imagine such a civilization creating much more sophisticated games than we are capable of building today.
As I started to study Quantum Physics and its startling revelations about the nature of “objective” vs. “subjective” reality, I started to wonder again about the idea of a giant multi-player video game. Moreover, as I delved more into the Eastern traditions, particularly Yogic and Buddhist philosophy, I found that their ideas about the nature of the world were actually pretty consistent with the idea that we are living in a simulation.
Why Might This Be A Video Game After All
Let’s delve into the top reasons why we may be living in a simulation after all:
1. Pixels, Resolution, Virtual and Augmented Reality
One of the main arguments that Musk makes is that a more advanced civilization will have games that are of very high resolution — so high that we would be unable to distinguish between the “real” world and a “simulated one”.
Today we are already seeing with Virtual Reality that “full immersion” is possible. Anyone who has played a convincing VR game will realize that it’s possible to forget about the real world and “believe” the world you are seeing is real.
As a great example, I was playing a prototype of a Ping Pong VR game last year (built by Free Range Games), and even though it wasn’t realistic resolution, I lost myself and thought I was playing ping pong for real. So much so that I set the paddle on the ping pong “table” and leaned against the table. Of course it was a VR table so it didn’t really exist — I ended up dropping the paddle (actually the Vive controller) onto the floor. As I leaned into the “table” I almost fell over before realizing that there was no table. In other words, to quote from the Matrix, there is no spoon.
Imaging what kind of pixel resolution we might have in a hundred years, let alone in a thousand years! It could be pretty convincing. Also, as AR technology evolves to project onto the retina without needing external glasses, we could be seeing things around us that aren’t really there in a resolution that’s indistinguishable from the physical world. This brings up the idea that the world “out there” could really be just a projection in our minds.
2. Pixels, Quanta, and Xeno’s Paradox.
I recall late nights at MIT during my undergrad years where I had philosophical debates with my classmates about the nature of reality. This was the first time I’d heard of Xeno’s paradox. The idea was that if space was continuous, like numbers are (you can always find an infinite number of numbers in between any two numbers), how is it possible to touch an object such as the wall? You would always have to cover half the distance and neve get there.
Xeno (or Zeno, whichever spelling you prefer!) related the paradox using the example of Achilles and a tortoise. If the tortoise was ahead of Achilles, how could he possibly ever catch it if he always had to make up “half the distance”?
When I first heard about this paradox, my initial reaction was that space must be quantized — there must be some minimum distance that we traverse. Later, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in this idea; whether this “minimum” amount is the Planck constant or some other amount isn’t as important as the idea that the physical universe, as we know it, may consists of pixels. Just like a video game! How many pixels are in the real world? To use a non-scientific term, a shitload.
3. An Open World and the Illusion of Infinite Possibilities.
Early video games were very linearly structured, such as space invaders or Pac-Man. There was a limited set of “motions” that were allowable using some “input” control, and there were specific objective as part of the each level, and you progressed linearly through the levels.
As video games evolved and 3d models of a “world” became commonplace, video games took an evolutionary leap. It seemed from the player’s perspective that you could move around and do anything. Examples of open world video games range from GTA (Grand Theft Auto) and WOW (World of Warcraft), or the Sims, which simulated life and eventually Virtual Worlds like Second Life. Of course the idea that he world is infinite and that we can do “anything” inside the world is a carefully crafted illusion.
Game designers know that’s not true. Using 3D modeling we can have a world that is generated and looks infinite but is really a set of maps and rules. In any game, no matter how “open” it appears, there are underlying tasks, or quests, or accomplishments, which are mapped out by the game designers. Is it possible that we have a similar illusion of “open-ness” in life?
4. The Collapse of the Probability Wave, Future Selves, and Parallel Universes
In Quantum physics one of the most intriguing ideas is the probability matrix, which is an interpretation of how subatomic particles can exhibit properties of both a wave and a solid particle at the same time. At the level of an electron or a photon, the wave is interpreted as a set of probabilities of where the particle might be at any given time. When we observe a particular possibility, then the probability wave is said to “collapse” and we see a single particle in a particular location.
Some interpreters have taken this to the macro level to say that there are a set of probabilities in which we exist both in the present and in the future.
Which of the possible paths do we follow? There isn’t a good explanation; how the probability wave collapses is one of the biggest mysteries in Quantum Physics. The best answer physicists have come up with is that consciousness somehow determines the collapse.
Physicist Fred Alan Wolf, for example, says that information from these possible futures is coming to us in the present and that we send out an “offer wave” into the future, which is interacting with the “offer waves” coming from the future to the present. Which possible future we navigate to depends on which choices we make, and how these two waves super-pose on each other (or cancel each other out).
These are startling results. Future probable selves are sending back information to the present, and we are consciously choosing which path to follow.
Another related aspect of Quantum Physics that sounds like science fiction is the Parallel Universes theory, where we branch into different “universes” when we make decisions. If that’s true, then there is a directed graph of multiple universes that are branching out each time we make a decision, resulting in different timelines (in fact, the parallel universes theory was put forward to solve the grandfather paradox of time travel).
This reminded me of the very first video game I made back at MIT. The way that the computer chose the next move was to project the possible futures, and then use a certain algorithm to “rank” those futures, and then bring those values back to the present and then the AI would choose the path to follow.
Did the possible futures we were calculating in our game actually exist? Or were they just probabilities? I realized that this isn’t too much different from what’s happening at the quantum level, except that in existing games like chess or checkers, we use a simple function (based on the rules of the game) to decide which of the paths is most optimal. We used the “minimax” algorithm in game design, trying to maximize our score and minimize our opponents score at each “turn of the future”.
In the Great Simulation of life, suppose there is another “function” which is ranking these possible futures, and we at some subconconscious level are choosing which of those possible futures and branches we may want to take from the present forward, just like in a video game!
5. Observables and conditional rendering.
When we have a 3d video game, we map out the world using 3d models. In some games, we allow user-generated content that stays in the world even after we log out of the gameplay session so that other players can see it.
In video games, this “model” of the “world” exists outside of the character’s perception. In a trick meant for optimization, we don’t “render” the whole world on every single player’s computer. We only render the part of the world that the player is in, and then usually only for a certain point of view at a certain time. It would be impractical to render the entire world!
Moreover, in 3d video games, there are techniques to optimize the rendering based upon what the player is looking at. These techniques were pioneered in first person shooters like Doom and now used heavily in VR headsets.
A philosophical question that comes up in both Quantum Physics and in Video Games is that if no one is in a particular part of the 3d world — i.e no one is observing it, or no player is there — does the particular possibility exist?
Just like Schroedinger’s mysterious cat, which is neither dead nor alive until someone observes it, the world of video games relies on a player being logged in to render the world. If no one is logged into a particular room or a particular world, what state is it in? For example, what happens if there are no players logged into any of the servers of an MMORPG like World of Warcraft? The servers are running but nothing generally happens until a player logs in to observe what is going on, not unlike Quantum Physics.
Spiritual and Mystical Traditions
The next few reasons reflect interesting parallels between some of the spiritual and religious traditions, particularly the Eastern traditions and the Simulation Hypothesis. If you’re not into that, skip to reasons #9 and #10.
6. The World is an Illusion. In many mystical traditions, particularly in Buddhism and Hinduism, we are told that the world around us is actually an illusion. Maya, the Sanskrit word for illusion, is used to describe the world we see, and Brahman, is the real world.
In Buddhism, the idea is that to “wake up” you have to recognize that the world around us is an illusion. In fact the term “Buddha” means literally “awake”.
In modern terms, they might just be describing a type of video game that we are all caught within, not unlike the HoloDeck from Star Trek. We are caught inside the illusory world, while there is a real world just beyond that we cannot normally perceive unless we “wake up”.
In fact, there is a branch of Buddhist Yoga called Dream Yoga, which is used to help us “wake up”. In Dream Yoga, a form of lucid dreaming, participants are taught to realize that the dreams we go through at night are “simulated” experiences. By learning to recognize that we are in a simulation, we can “wake ourselves up”. The idea is that if we can do this in the “fake” worlds of dreams, so that we can do it in the “fake world” of real life — which is also a simulated reality!
7. Multiple Lives, Points, Levels & Experience. According to many eastern traditions, we are actually going through multiple lives, gaining experience in each life and moving up to different levels of “evoluation”.
In early video games like Pac Man or Space Invaders, each player also had a number of lives — the player accumulated points until the character was killed. The player could “continue” from the place they died, or could “start over” until the dreaded “GAME OVER” flashed on the screen.
In MMORPGs, the player usually has a character which stores up a certain set of experiences between gameplay sessions (the character’s state).If we start over, the player of course remembers the skills they have gained in previous lives, but the character starts over with zero values in their state.
This is analogous to how in some Buddhist traditions, when we are born, even though we retain the tendencies of previous lives, we cross the “river of forgetfulness” when we “start over”. In these traditions there is still someplace that we store all of our experiences and our points. Where? It’s not explicitly stated, but it sure sounds like they are uploaded to some kind of “cloud server”.
Let’s look at Western religous traditions. As I was growing up in the Islamic tradition, I was told that there was “scorecard” that was being kept for us in this life — every good deed was recorded (“swab”) and every bad deed was recorded (“haram”) and depending on the score at the end of your life (and on Judgement Day, the day of Kyamath) you would go to either Junnath (Heaven) or Jahanam (Hell). In the Christian traditions, there is also the idea of the two angels on each shoulders and the idea of going to Heaven or Hell (with Purgatory thrown in for good measure). Again, we have the same idea: of a player game-state that is uploaded somewhere “outside” the rendered world.
8. Quests, Karma and God-like AI
In the eastern traditions, our experiences in life are not random; there is a system that is keeping track of what we think and do, and then creating situations in the world to deal with our past actions, called Karma.
Now if you were going to design a seemingly open-ended game, a simulation that can track billions of players, you would need to keep track of quests and achievements for each person.
In today’s video games, the quests/achievements/challenges are the same for each player. However, it’s not very difficult to envision a more sophisticated video game where quests were chosen based on the past experience of the player. And like in a particular level of a video game, the player could be confronted with similar challenges, again and again, until they are able to pass the challenge.
To accomplish these kinds of “personalized quests” you would need to synchronize across a very large base of “players” and “NPC” or non-player characters (billions of concurrent players in the Great Simulation). You would also need to figure out which group of other players might be compatible, right now, in the moment, in a specific section of the 3d world, to a player’s quests. The result of each interaction in the game could have lasting consequences, leading to more challenges in the future.
Some intelligence would need to keep track of billions of concurrent players (something we can’t do yet in any video game today). It would seem that an Artificial Intelligence system would be ideal for this kind of task. It may not even need to be that intelligent, as long as the rules were clearly defined and it could scale infinitely!
Let’s move from the East to the West, to a more traditional religious framework. In these religions everyone prays to God. Let’s assume for a moment that God is real. What is God? What kind of intelligence, if it existed, could keep track of so many, billions of individual prayers and timelines? What could keep track of whether on judgement day, you are to go down to a deeper, less pleasant level (“Hell”) of hte game, or go to a higher, more pleasurable level (“Heaven”). You guessed it — an extremely sophisticated AI.
Moving away from spiritual traditions, let’s come back to science for our final two reasons.
9. Player Characters (PC) vs. Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
Nick Bostrom, on the faculty at Oxford University, has long been a proponent of the simulation hypothesis. The argument that he makes is different — that civilizations are unlikely to survive and if they do, then they would have powerful computers that can do “ancestor” simulations. We are more likely, concludes Bostrom, simulated consciousness than actual biological beings. From his famous paper:
One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). 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. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones
As a video game designer, this reminds me of our attempts to create realistic “NPC”s or non-player characters. As games have gotten more sophisticated, these AI characters have gotten more sophisticated. We may rapidly be approaching AI which can pass the Turing Test, which is an AI that is indistinguishable from a human being (if you were conversing with them).
I recall early text games like Zork had players that would talk to you and attempts to make these characters realistic. AI has advanced well beyond that but we do not currently have NPCs which can pass the Turing Test. Once we do (in 10 years? In 100 years? In a thousand years), the possibility that people we are interacting with inside a simulation are NPCs goes up considerably. Professor Bostrom thinks that “we” are the simulated consciousness.
10. Speed of Light, Wormholes, etc.
It is curious that in our Universe, as far as we can tell, the fastest that we can travel from point A to point B is the speed of light. This also happens to be the speed of electrical systems and electromagnetic waves. In a normal video game, the fastest we would be able to send information from one player to the next would be over electrical wires. Why would the fastest we can travel through space be the same as the speed of electromagnetic waves, unless our idea of space was being generated by some form of electromagnetic wave?
In the Virtual World of Second Life, if you try to go from point A to point B, you would be stuck traveling through the “space” of the game and would have to move slowly — whether you were walking or flying. On the other hand, you could instantly teleport to another part of the game at which point a different part of the 3d world will render around you.
Do we also have this ability in real life? Some physicists have theorized wormholes, or Einstein-Rosen bridges, which would allow us to tear through the fabric of spacetime to shortcut the fabric of space and time. You could think of it as a backdoor — basically a teleport in video game terms.
These are just some of the reasons why we may be living in a Video Game after all, the Great Simulation. I haven’t even gotten into some of the more esoteric or psychological reasons (which would take a whole book unto itself).
As computer science and artificial intelligence rapidly advance their capabilities, it may be possible to create a simulated world that looks and feels as real as our own. Video games, which started out with simple rules about what can be done and simple 2d worlds, have advanced rapidly into a MMORPG (massive multi-player online role playing games) with millions of players interacting in a simulated world. As computer technology advances, the chances of creating a billion player plus simulated world like our own is rapidly approaching.
Moreover, Quantum Physics gives us a description of the univere (or multiple universes) that doesn’t make sense from the perspective of an “objective reality” but requires observation by some consciousness. These sometimes incredible findings defy common sense, unless we are living inside a video game rather than a physical reality and consciousness is the equivalent to us “logging into” the system.
Eastern traditions, particularly Buddhist traditions, have long contended that we are living in world of illusion, and that we go through multiple lives trying to work out our individual quests, all of which are stored beyond the “rendered world”. There is a giant system that not only stores this but creates new situations for us to get our “achievements”. Sure sounds like a Video Game to me.
All of these areas, Computer Science/Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Physics, and Eastern spiritual traditions point to one likely scenario: That we are living inside a very sophisticated Video Game, which I call The Great Simulation.
Like all simulations, our world may only be real while the “simulation” is running.
This reminds me of a quote from the British intellectual, Havelock Ellis, about dreams. He said:“Dreams are real while they last. Can we say any more of life?”
Can we indeed??