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Welcome to the Machine, Part 3: The Simulation Argument
George Dvorsky   Apr 10, 2009   Sentient Developments  

No longer relegated to the domain of science fiction or the ravings of street corner lunatics, the “simulation argument” has increasingly become a serious theory amongst academics, one that has been best articulated by philosopher Nick Bostrom.

In his seminal paper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” Bostrom applies the assumption of substrate-independence, the idea that mental states can reside on multiple types of physical substrates, including the digital realm. He speculates that a computer running a suitable program could in fact be conscious. He also argues that future civilizations will very likely be able to pull off this trick and that many of the technologies required to do so have already been shown to be compatible with known physical laws and engineering constraints.

Harnessing computational power

Similar to futurists Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge, Bostrom believes that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Moore’s Law, which describes an eerily regular exponential increase in processing power, is showing no signs of waning, nor is it obvious that it ever will.

To build these kinds of simulations, a posthuman civilization would have to embark upon computational megaprojects. As Bostrom notes, determining an upper bound for computational power is difficult, but a number of thinkers have given it a shot. Eric Drexler has outlined a design for a system the size of a sugar cube that would perform 10^21 instructions per second. Robert Bradbury gives a rough estimate of 10^42 operations per second for a computer with a mass on order of a large planet. Seth Lloyd calculates an upper bound for a 1 kg computer of 5*10^50 logical operations per second carried out on ~10^31 bits – this would likely be done on a quantum computer or computers built of out of nuclear matter or plasma [check out this article and this article for more information].

More radically, John Barrow has demonstrated that, under a very strict set of cosmological conditions, indefinite information processing (pdf) can exist in an ever-expanding universe.

At any rate, this extreme level of computational power is astounding and it defies human comprehension. It’s like imagining a universe within a universe—and that’s precisely be how it may be used.

Worlds within worlds

“Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct,” writes Bostrom. “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.” And because their computers would be so powerful, notes Bostrom, they could run many such simulations.

This observation, that there could be many simulations, led Bostrom to a fascinating conclusion. It’s conceivable, he argues, that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original species but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of the original species. 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.”

Moreover, there is also the possibility that simulated civilizations may become posthuman themselves. Bostrom writes,

They may then run their own ancestor-simulations on powerful computers they build in their simulated universe. Such computers would be “virtual machines”, a familiar concept in computer science. (Java script web-applets, for instance, run on a virtual machine – a simulated computer – inside your desktop.) Virtual machines can be stacked: it’s possible to simulate a machine simulating another machine, and so on, in arbitrarily many steps of iteration…we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.

Given this matrioshkan possibility, the number of “real” minds across all existence should be vastly outnumbered by simulated minds. The suggestion that we’re not living in a simulation must therefore address the apparent gross improbabilities in question.

Again, all this presupposes, of course, that civilizations are capable of surviving to the point where it’s possible to run simulations of forebears and that our descendants desire to do so. But as noted above, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to preclude such a technological feat.

Next: Kurzweil’s nano neural nets.


George Dvorsky
George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


An interesting consequence of the simulation argument:
If most of the simulations are history simulations, then there is a reasonable chance that legislation made here has also been enacted on “level zero”.
Also, it’s a certainty that the programmers, if human, have given thought to the possibility that they themselves may be simulated.

If we legislate that simulations containing conscious organisms must provide an afterlife for them, and then reach a consensus of what form that afterlife should take, there’s a good chance that such an afterlife is in fact waiting for us…

Dear Sir(s):
Everests Many Worlds says that all the so called virtual worlds are real. Thus there is really no such distinction as a simulation !.  The simulation is from your or my view point.
Chris. Harding

Simulation is the imitation of some real thing, state of affairs, or process. The act of simulating something generally entails representing certain key characteristics or behaviours of a selected physical or abstract system.

Since virtual worlds are never exact models of each other then all are simulations at some point meeting the definition of having certain key characteristics or behaviours of a selected physical or abstract system. If we accept the original concept of time travel put forward by GODEL then for such endless splintering of the worlds all may be seen as simulations of each other as an outcome of the physical complexitity of the 5 dimensional status of existence thus bluring any distinction between it and any notion of reality as something solid. It would appear to me that studies into simulation should be studies done into the degrees of matching ie it has a more quantitative aspect to it than previously thought.

So the question now is, how can we test to see if our universe is a simulation or not. Also is a test even possible considering weve been living a lie our entire existence?

I would agree in that it becomes a question about modification of definitions. But then is not ones degree of intelligence the extent to which one can keep the concept constant !.
I do not have sufficient imagination to proceed from here.
chris. harding

One possibility that seems to fit well here is the work being done on the “Holographic Universe” theory. Further evidence that we are basically living in a giant, cosmic hologram projected from somewhere else, I think, would lend concrete support to the possibility that we are indeed living in a simulation. See,

BTW, if you haven’t seen the movie The Thirteenth Floor, check it out.

Well considering the vast popularity of games like the sims I cant see this as being entirely unlikely. Would explain why life seems so random sometimes as well. We are the ultimate reality tv show. The inital variables i.e. the cosmological constants were set and now its running the cource. Who knows how much the simulators are futzed with. But I think given our collective inteligence their should be a way to test this.

This puts me in mind of the C.T.M.U. Theory of Chris Langon which you can find on the web, One of the outcomes of his theory is that if you could cut a hole in space-time nature would instantly reconfigure the Universe. The critical part of simulation is completeness in the outcome. Our maths tools are incomplete and there for stand in contrast to this. Incompleteness defines choice but this is a matter of scalability or rather lack there of. So interpretation becomes the very substance of our world perspective and is mirrored in the maths we employ. It is not that maths is some how wrong only that we have forgotten the convenience of our concept. String theory avoids the infinities:  the attempt at the use of higher concepts in turn fails because of this convenient process of adaptive-forgetting. It is not that we are commiting errors of reason only miss applications of such concepts. So if you want to study your proposed question you must first put some limits on the question you are asking: it must fit within the meta-frame with no protruding elements least these become levers that work against your reason.
Chris. Harding

About that Holographic Universe theory—- never miiiiiind…

“We May Not Live in a Hologram After All”

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