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Are We Living in a Family History Simulation?
Lincoln Cannon   Oct 8, 2014   Lincoln Cannon  

Technology, and particularly computing, is essential to family history. Without it, we could still tell family stories to our children, but we certainly couldn’t substantiate those stories from billions of historical records into millions of family trees, as web applications like FamilySearch do today.

In the 1960s, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that the ratio of computing capacity to cost was doubling predictably, every couple years or faster. In other words, a computer built in 1969 had twice as much capacity as a computer built at the same cost in 1968, and over a hundred times as much capacity as a computer built at the same cost in 1962; a computer built in 1969 would also reliably have half the capacity of a computer built at the same cost in 1970, and less than a hundredth the capacity of a computer built at the same cost in 1976.

That trend, known as Moore’s Law, has continued to the present. Today, a $150 smartphone can store about a million times more data and process that data about a thousand times faster than the $150K Apollo Guidance Computer that took astronauts to the moon in 1969. The smartphone also has wireless access to extended computing capacity on the Internet, including powerful systems such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay, as well as gigantic troves of family history data.

Suppose Moore’s Law continues. Within decades, whatever replaces smartphones would have millions, billions and then trillions of times the overall computing capacity at the same cost. Within a century, $150 would purchase more computing capacity than that of all human brains combined. If that were to happen, what might the intersection of family history and technology look like? What might FamilySearch or be like? Of course we don’t really know, but let’s imagine.

One of the things we might do is tell stories about our family and ancestors at a much more massive scale and at a far deeper level, by computing highly detailed family history simulations. Maybe they would be something like a mix of Google Earth enhanced with a full history of maps derived from geological and astronomical research; Oculus Rift enhanced with brain-computer interfacing for an immersive tactile experience; and Second Life enhanced with avatars generated from family trees, photos, journals, and DNA, and abstracted to sub-neuronal degrees of detail to enable artificial intelligence. In deeper more meaningful ways, we could understand and even feel our family history, as the characters, settings, plots and conflicts unfold before us – as our stories come to life, and we walk in our ancestors’ shoes (literally?).

As it turns out, if ever we compute such family history simulations, detailed to the point of enabling the characters with fully immersive consciousness, there would be a rather shocking philosophical ramification.

Above, we imagined that one of the things we might do with vast computing resources in the future is run highly detailed family history simulations, to the point of enabling the characters with artificial intelligence and fully immersive consciousness. If something like $150 could purchase more computing capacity than that of all human brains combined, we might run many thousands, millions, or more family history simulations, for education, entertainment, research and innumerable other purposes.

Now imagine further that you actually live in such a future. version 42 has just been released, and all your friends are using it to run family history simulations. One day, while you and a friend are watching some of your ancestors, your friend turns to you and asks, “Are we living in a family history simulation?” You laugh of course, but your friend insists.

“Seriously! Are we living in a family history simulation? Think about it. probably runs at least a million family history simulations. Each of them includes billions of artificial intelligences that, so far as I can tell, experience their world like we experience ours. That’s something like, oh, let’s just say eight quadrillion artificial intelligences. What are the chances that you and I happen to be among eight billion natural intelligences instead of eight quadrillion artificial intelligences? … one in a million, or less because that’s assuming a non-simulated world simulated the others. I’d say we’re almost certainly living in a family history simulation.”

Your friend would be right. If there are a large number of worlds verified to be inside family history simulations, and no worlds verified to be outside family history simulations (despite common assumptions about our own world), the laws of probability entail that any given world, including our own, is most likely to be inside a family history simulation, and worlds outside family history simulations are merely an improbable hypothesis. In other words, if we run many family history simulations, we probably already live in one. Fellow tech-philosophy nerds should take a look at a formal development of this idea, known as the Simulation Argument.

Now this philosophical argument doesn’t purport to prove that we’re actually living in a family history simulation. It only purports to prove that at least one of two possibilities must be true: either (1) we will never compute many family history simulations to a degree of detail that enables characters with artificial intelligence and fully immersive consciousness, or (2) we probably already live in such a family history simulation. However, both possibilities present us with some challenges.

The first suggests various probabilistic or hard limits to our technological progress. Maybe we’re likely to destroy ourselves with powerful new weapons or succumb to natural global catastrophes before attaining the ability to run detailed family history simulations. Perhaps we’re destined for some form of totalitarian control that would stifle such innovations. It may even be the case that the complexity or nature of consciousness is such that completely immersing or embedding it in a simulation is impossible or progress toward it would be asymptotic – indefinitely progressing slower and slower while requiring more and more resources.

Of course, if the first possibility is not true then the second must be, and it entails that reality is not what most of us usually suppose it to be. So what do you think? Are we living in a family history simulation? Could and would we simulate our ancestors to the point of artificial intelligence and immersive consciousness?

Lincoln Cannon is a technologist and philosopher, and leading advocate of technological evolution and postsecular religion. He is a founder, board member, and former president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He is a founder and advisor of the Christian Transhumanist Association. And he formulated the New God Argument, a logical argument for faith in God that is popular among religious Transhumanists.


Moore’s law, as it’s currently formulated, applies only to digital/symbolic computers. Everything you do with such a machine could also be done using pencil, paper and enough time. Are you suggesting that speed is magical? If we could execute the proper sequence of transformations using a series of graphite markings on a gigantic role of paper fast enough it would become a conscious being that experiences qualia, just as you do?

Maybe in the future there will be digital machines that modulate a portion of the physical universe in just the right way that it becomes capable of experiencing qualia. How fast does the digital computer need to be to modulate the universe in just the right way? I’m not sure, maybe our computers are already fast enough…

A related question is:

Is it ethical for my “relatives” to run a simulation in which I manifest as a simulated being that is capable of feeling qualia, including pain?

Seems very selfish of them. Maybe we could add that observation to option 2:

(2) we probably already live in such a family history simulation and it is being run by a selfish being that seems to substantially disregard the pain their simulations are causing some portion of the universe to experience.

Hi Jason. Thanks for commenting. You seem to be assuming some things about the nature of consciousness and the ethics of suffering that might not be true. On the first, as suggested by the question at the end of my article, I don’t have a strong opinion (expect that I strongly believe no one yet has a good answer). On the second, I don’t think the risk of suffering is inherently immoral; in fact, I don’t think morality is even a meaningful concept outside the context of risk of suffering.

I don’t know if it will ever be possible to create a conscious being (complete with qualia) outside of the normal biological process of conception.

I think your point about morality being incoherent without the possibility of suffering is an interesting point. Is making the simulation more realistic the purpose of creating beings with moral agency (e.g. they may feel suffering if immorality occurs)? Is a realistic simulation a good enough motivation for it to be ethically permissible to allow suffering? A utilitarian calculation of some sort may need to be done. Certainly animal experiment regulations should apply - or even universal human rights laws!

Maybe some research could be done to identify the signatures of suffering in natural and artificial systems. Should we ever be able to artificially instantiate a conscious being, regulations could target those signatures.

This whole idea is extra disturbing when you consider the fact that these creatures would not even be your actual relatives. Presumably, the conscious beings would be filled with false memories and given tendencies for the purpose of the simulation. How should I feel about this if I am in fact part of one of these simulations?

By the way, thanks for contributing to this interesting conversation (:

Jason, it seems to me that we’re already dealing with the moral questions that would be involved in our decision to compute conscious beings each time we choose to procreate conscious beings, bringing them into our world with its risk of suffering. We’ll also deal with these moral questions if and when we produce artificial intelligence (humanoid or not) that we think might have consciousness. Some even suppose that mind may already permeate everything to some primitive extent, in which case we’d also be dealing with these moral questions each time we interact with the world at large.

@jasoncstone asked: “Is it ethical for my “relatives” to run a simulation in which I manifest as a simulated being that is capable of feeling qualia, including pain?”

Is it ethical to bring kids into the world knowing full well that they too will feel pain? I don’t see any difference between that and the manifestation of simulated people that feel pain. Aside from that, it’s possible that simulated persons could be a source of pain relief for other simulated persons as well as non-simulated. If we are living in a simulation then one thing is certain, these issues have already been resolved. In the meantime, with all the weird science out there, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define what is real.

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