IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Contributors > Minduploading > Phil Torres > Philosophy > Futurism > Technoprogressivism > Innovation > Artificial Intelligence > Neuroscience > Brain–computer-interface
Why Running Simulations May Mean the End is Near
Phil Torres   Nov 3, 2014   Ethical Technology  

People have for some time speculated about the possibility that we’re living inside a computer simulation. But the 2003 publication of Nick Bostrom’s “Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?” brought a new level of sophistication to the topic. Bostrom’s argument is that one (or more) of the following disjuncts is true: (i) our species will go extinct before reaching an advanced posthuman stage; (ii) our species will reach a posthuman stage but decide not, for whatever reasons, to run a large number of simulations; or (iii) we are almost certainly in a simulation.

Defeaters of this argument include the possibility that present trends in technological development are non-projectable into the future, and that the philosophical theory of “functionalism” is false. In the absence of these defeaters, though, the argument appears sound.

The claim that at least one of these three possibilities holds is known as the simulation argument. The simulation hypothesis, on the other hand, is the claim that the third disjunct is true. Another way to put this disjunct goes as follows: if we run large numbers of simulations in the future, we should assume that we ourselves are simulants in a simulation – that we are mere strings of 1s and 0s being manipulated by a massively powerful algorithm on a supercomputer somewhere in the universe one level above ours. Simulating universes counts as evidence for us being in one.

The reasoning is no doubt familiar to most readers. We can put it like this: imagine we’re running lots of simulations (of an “ancestral” variety) right now. Since minds are functional rather than material kinds (according to functionalism), then the beings inside these simulations are no less conscious than we are. Computers too are functional kinds, which means that there may be further simulations running on simulated computers within these simulated worlds. So the ratio of “real” to simulated minds will end up being hugely skewed towards the latter.

Now imagine that you randomly select any individual from any world, real or simulated. Upon picking a person out you ask: “Is he or she a simulant?” In virtually every case, the individual selected will be a simulant. Repeating this over and over again, you eventually happen to select yourself. You ask the same question, but how should you answer? According to a “bland” version of the indifference principle, you should answer the same way you answered in every other case: “The person selected – in this case me – is a simulant (or almost certainly so, statistically speaking).”

An interesting thing follows from this, which is only briefly explored in Bostrom’s original paper. (Others have discussed it for sure, but some of the implications appear not to be fully examined.) Imagine you keep selecting individuals, and eventually pick someone in the universe one level above ours. Is this person a simulant? Again, the most probable answer is “Yes.”

The same applies to the simulators of his or her world, and the simulators of their world as well, and so on. In other words, the central line of reasoning of Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis entails that if we run large numbers of simulations in the future, there almost certainly exists a vast hierarchy of nested simulations – universes stacked like matryoshka dolls, one enclosed within the another.

Bostrom notes that the cost of running a simulation is inherited upwards in the hierarchy, a point that counts against this “multilevel hypothesis.” But the fact is that if simulations are common in the future, it will be much more likely that any given simulator is a simulant than not.

Not only this but if each simulation spawns a few simulations of their own, there will be far more simulations at the bottom of the hierarchy than the top (where one finds Ultimate Reality). If you had to place a bet, you’d be more likely to lose if you put your money on our world being somewhere at the top rather than the bottom, with loads of simulations stacked above us.

If correct, this has significant implications for existential risks. Risks of an eschatological nature trickle downwards through the hierarchy in a cumulative manner. Many futurists have speculated about what we can do to keep our simulation from getting shut down: maybe we should fight more wars over religion to keep our simulators interested in us, or refrain from discussing the simulation hypothesis too much, lest it affect our behavior (as the Hawthorne effect predicts it will).

But what’s to keep our simulators’ simulation from being terminated? Or the simulation of their simulators? Etc. The termination of even a single simulation above ours means the termination of us: a kind of death by transitivity. And the more simulations above, the greater the riskiness of living below.

(Note: it might not even take a simulation above us getting shut down to terminate our cosmos. Maybe the civilization in a simulation five levels above ours plunges into an existential war. The building in which the computer is housed gets bombed, thus shutting down all the simulations within simulations being run on it. Or maybe our species runs large numbers of simulations in the future but then kicks the bucket in a large-scale nanotech accident. The simulations being run then get the boot.)

In sum, the simulation hypothesis doesn’t just suggest that we’re in a simulation, it suggests that there exists a vast stack of nested simulations. Both conclusions follow from the same line of reasoning. Furthermore, since the bottom of the hierarchy will tend to contain more simulations than the top (if, for example, each simulation runs a few simulations of its own the number will grow exponentially as you move down the hierarchy), it’s more likely that we’re somewhere near the bottom than the top.

This is worrisome. Being at the bottom is extremely risky, since risk is inherited downwards. More simulations above us means more opportunity for an existential catastrophe. It follows that running simulations in the future implies our existential predicament may be far more precarious than we’d otherwise think. Option (iii) implies that the outcome of (i) – extinction – may be just around the corner.

Phil Torres is an author and artist. His forthcoming book is called The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse (Pitchstone Publishing). You can contact him here:


Interesting! I was thinking of another way that our world being a simulation could signal an impending end: Dr. Richard J. Terrile, a physicist who is exploring the possibility that our universe is a simulation, has calculated the chances of him being here, now, less than 50 years before we arrive at the technology to create such simulations at 1 chance in 300,000,000, given the age of the universe.
If we’re within 50 years of developing such simulation technology — and I see no reason to believe that we are not — then our creators might decide to terminate our simulation just before we prove that the sim world we create is exactly like the world in which we live.

Phil Torres has posted a fascinating rumination on the notion — popularized by Nick Bostrom and others, but originally made clear by Hans Moravec — that we may be living in a simulation. There is a line of reasoning that concludes “of course we have to be!”  The logic is compelling… if flawed in places.  Torres gives an excellent explanation….

…as I attempt also to do,  20 years ago, in my story “Stones of Significance,” which is one of the few “post-singularity” tales out there to grapple with these issues.

Alas, some factors are left out, for you to ponder separately. For example, the problem of WHY uber descendants would want to run a myriad simulated worlds, so realistic that their ersatz characters believe themselves (as you believe yourself) to be real?  Only one reason is hinted at — entertainment — in which case should our motive be to “be interesting” so our makers will want to keep watching?

Silly, actually.

A far more likely reason to make a lot of simulations would be error-path-avoidance.  Creating emulated near futures in order to try out possible policies or actions and see which ones stand a better chance of achieving success in the “real world”… or at least higher layers of simulation.  This pragmatic goal would simply extend what is already humanity’s greatest power, using powerful organs called the Prefrontal Lobes to perform thought experiments… that Einstein called gedankenexperiments… and explore our options mentally, before taking physical action

That is also the reason for making simulations that’s explored in “Stones of Significance.”

Alas, this explanation for our existence seems unlikely as well, because we do not live in the “future” of our simulation makers!  We are in their past and hence of much less use in charting their path ahead.  Oh, perhaps they might be running “what went wrong in the 21st Century”?  Or perhaps even “what went right?”  But such questions would not seem to call for a plethora of worlds, just a few, and hence the main hypothesis fails.

Frank Tipler, in THE PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY,  dived into this notion with spectacularly brilliant detail, positing that we may be living simulated lives because our descendants brought us back out of pity and love.  A resurrection of sorts.  Followed by a heaven of sorts… one that did not follow our original span on Earth.

Another possibility, explored in my short story “Reality Check,” ponders that any one of us may be living this life as an escape from the ennui of life as omniscient godlike beings in the 95th century.  That 21st Century life has just the right combination of tension and comfort, excitement and possibility, that make it a perfect “destination” for our real-uber selves to flee into and avoid the wretched boredom of our larger, perfected lives.

All told, a fascinating topic, though not explored yet in all its nooks and crannies.

Cool provocative article and fascinating subject.  It really seems to make so much sense, logically speaking.  Regarding the concept of nested simulations, I think this was also written extensively about in the book “On Computer Simulated Universes”.

@Jønathan Lyons said “...our creators might decide to terminate our simulation just before we prove that the sim world we create is exactly like the world in which we live.”

Unless of course the goal is for us to create a simulation within the simulation in an endless system referred to as a process fractal. Some have even extended this to represent the multi-verse theory, but that’s a big leap forward.

But I what I found most interested in what you said is that it suggests we could do something to cause the end of the simulation. However, there would be no need to end the simulation based on a cause and effect notion when the simulation administrators can simply pause, remove any data that proves the world is a simulation and then reboot the sim. If you’ve ever played an MMO then you will be familiar with this process, it’s called a “rollback”.

@David Brin
I really like your inventive speculations regarding the motivation behind a simulated world. One I’ve entertained myself is the idea that a sim this convincing, and this hidden could be hidden for a reason, in order to keep us prisoners from escaping. You can read my full take on this if you google “Do We Live In A Simulated Prison?”.

Living in a “computer” simulation is a plausible hyopthesis for many of us who have experienced Altered Sates of Consciousness. The question of the purpose of such a simulation is as interesting as the one about its functioning or its creators and origin.

As for its purpose I believe that we need to take seriously the so-called spiritual and “new age” literature on the evolution of our universe. According to them we are here to create heaven on earth. If we equate heaven with the dimension where the creators of our simulation reside then our dimension (earth) might be an attempt to reproduce the same environment on a smaller scale. I believ it is no conincidence that on the microlevel we are not only developing more powerful computers and try to construct a qunatum computer and at the same time discover nanotechnology while on the macrolevel we lose belife in the evolution of our universe by chance and discover more and more hints that our universe is the product of creation and not coincidence.

Another meme whih is circulating in the aforementioned discourses is the idea that we are creators/co-creators. Again this hints at the possiblity that we are either avatars of those who created the simulation or mini-versions of them.

Personally I find the idea of a myriad of simulations ridiculous. If we take seriously the spiritual literature on the origin of the universe and the origin of man than it is much more likely that there is our dimension and the dimension of the creators.

Cypher : “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
[ Takes a bite of steak]
... Ignorance is bliss.”


(ps - any hypothesis that aims to deconstruct MWI - Count me in)

I’m with David Brin here. What is the objective of these nested simulations? Entertainment that spurs more entertainment, nested to levels where you no longer know where the simulations end?

I know I am applying human ethics to this situation, but why would you allow nested uncontrolled simulations in the way that is being described. It is not efficient, nor does it solve the case of entertainment once nested in the way described.

I can see why we’d create virtual worlds for entertainment, and possibly why those would get sophisticated enough to spurn a simulation of their own, but I can’t see intelligent creatures letting this nesting go on without controls.

So either we get to the point of creating a simulation and we can’t, or the plug is pulled, or we’re not in a simulation.

Either way in about 25 years with AI I guess we’ll have the answer to these and other thrilling questions….

I for one welcome our all knowing robot overlords

Simulations above and below may be finite/limited, in as much as there may be information loss as you go down levels (this argument follows Ross Ashby’s Cybernetic Law of Requisite Variety). Given this possibility, the complexity of simulations would reduce as you go down the hierarchy, at some point the complexity will be such that agents within them may not be able to be self-aware. In as much as we are, then we are above that threshold. We need not therefore be “near the bottom.”

This relates to the topic at hand. David Deutsche’s, application of quantum computing theory to MWI, apparently gives us the potential of unlimited computing space, or as the mathematicians call it, phase space. It is in actuality, the Hilbert Hotel thesis in action. Just keep adding on until you have your solution. Now how practical this really is, is way beyond me. Is it even attainable in principle? After reading David Deutsch’s books and papers and comparing them to others that are available at ARXIV, I give this a tentative very cautious, yes.  Simply based on this, the idea that somebody’s going to cut the budget, or pull the plug, is less reasonable the things simply going on and on, if we are simulation and that’s the question?

I find a flaw in the idea that we are in some sort of existential risk depending on what level of simulation our reality is executed upon. Imagine our simulation is executed 12 levels down from sort of top simulation. Now suppose 18 levels down the same exact simulation is executed of us. If level 16 stops the level 17 simulation which in turn stops the copy of our level 18 simulation, but its ok! because level 11 is executing us simultaneously.

Thus our representation of reality could be executed an infinite number of times on an infinite amount of realities and mediums - so no I would not worry about our parent pulling the plug since there is an infinite other realities that will execute this representation of reality that you are experiencing now. In other words this reality is not an instance, it is a form that just exists because it can of various of mediums, enjoy the ride 😉

When you adjust the assumption that the sim is not for entertainment, but for imprisonment, then the purpose of having nested simulations seems more viable.

Concerning motivations..

Certainly the spiritual/ontological question is not unreasonable - aside from theories for entertainment, imprisonment and problem solving, any creation may be well be actioned as a means to propagate life through a philosophy of simply “sharing” by creators/artilects/God, (this is a common spiritual tenet in most religions).

Now you may be asking how a simulation constitutes/equates to qualifications as life? The answer is rather what doesn’t? Biology and chemistry and data manipulations all rely on physics, atomic/quantum?

This particular article I found astounding.. Can you imagine any program using such a sample rate, (Omnipresence)?

DARPA amplifier circuit achieves speeds of_1 trillion Hz, enters Guinness World_Records

Imagine the possibilities for cosmic communications, (Fermi paradox)?


I just reread my comment and I have to admit that in hindsight the idea of different levels of simulation is not as ridiculous as it first appeared to me. I guess it is a semantic barrier that blocked me from taking it seriously. In the aforementioned discourse there is the talk of disembodied entities (e.g. angels, reptilians, ghosts). they could exist at a level between our dimension and the dimension of the creators.

It would be also interesting to think of the multiverse in the context of a computer simulation with different parameters.

@Whane the Whip: would be interesting if you could elaborate where you see the connection between imprisonment and nested simulations, i kinda like thsi twist.

@Brett King - “What is the objective of these nested simulations?”

If self-organizing life as we know it represents any kind of microcosm, simulations become necessary to avert existential risk (e.g. heat death) for the parent universe, with the outcome of a “successful” simulation being a solution to the problem…

... of course, “solving the problem” from the perspective of a simulation faced with its own existential risk might mean something else entirely.

Future AI will probably will need to cope with the Fermi paradox. To find distribution of other AI in the Galaxy, he will need to find the probability of existential risks and to do so he will have to run many ancestor simulations.
So most of his simulations will be near time of possible x-risks that is 20-21 century. And we are here!

I would imagine that the surveyors in the Ultimate Reality keep a back-up of every simulation containing consciousness that has spawned since their first simulated reality. This is their game after all, every level is technically by them for them, either for educational purposes or entertainment or both, and though they might suspect that they themselves have creators they do not, they came from nothing by mistake or come from a reality where consciousness is infinite.
Otherwise if any one simulation above ours were to be terminated for any reason, and they most likely would have by now, we would not exist. So,  every simulation since the original reality still exists, or all or just the best survive through a back-up in the Ultimate Reality’s hard drive where we currently reside, or we are the original, we are the mistake, and we start the chain. The most logical reason to terminate an existence is if the collective consciousness decides that existence is bad and destroys itself. I think our surveyors want to see if we can perceive the reality it gave us, likely very close to the same type of reality it itself resides in, as good.  Either that’s how they win their game, or maybe they themselves don’t know the answer.

@David Brin @Brett King @ZC

Well, I was going to reply with something of my “own,” but after reading ZC’s comment, he/she pretty much nailed it. Ha. I think that’s one good possibility and/or reason for multiple simulations.

@David Brin @Brett King @ZC

I was going to add something of my “own,” but I think ZC pretty much nailed or summarizes what I was going to say. The next step or another possibility after that would then be that we already reached “heat death” and are now, kind of, back at the “95th generation” you mentioned in your post David - which, in some respects puts us back at square one and/or, loosely, where DJ Milosz talks about. Just kind of ruminating at this point, but maybe we’re in a strictly digital realm of sorts with only the 1s and 0s working towards a more quantum reality, or we can communicate with others in other simulations via quantum entanglement of sorts, or the organic nature we find around us is the culmination of such pursuits, which CygnusX1 kind of hits on. Anyway, this is a great article and discussion!

If each simulation downstream is running 10 times quicker than their owners simulation, it will almost dissolve this risk. Now we need to prove that it is so. It is likely that each simulation downstream is using less computational resources. First, because it uses only part of all resources available to its owner, but more importantly, is that because each simulation in general simulate earlier time of the civilizational development with more primitive computers. There is also no reason to run slow simulations. So most simulation will run quicker, and it will multiply in many layer simulation. This means that when on 5 level one second will pass, on 3rd level - a year, and on 1 (our) level - million years. It also means that switching off of our simulation will be very slow, if it switched off on higher level. It also means that it is probably already switched off on some high level.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Self-Folding Robot Assembles Autonomously

Previous entry: Over the Edge: Raising money, awareness for brain cancer research