Whoa, Dude, Are We Inside a Computer Right Now?
This NASA Scientist Thinks We Could Be
Sep 11 2012
Illustration By Julian Garcia
Two years ago, Rich Terrile appeared on Through the Wormhole, the Science Channel’s show about the mysteries of life and the universe. He was invited onto the program to discuss the theory that the human experience can be boiled down to something like an incredibly advanced, metaphysical version of The Sims.
It’s an idea that every college student with a gravity bong and The Matrix on DVD has thought of before, but Rich is a well-regarded scientist, the director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is currently writing an as-yet-untitled book about the subject, so we’re going to go ahead and take him seriously.
The essence of Rich’s theory is that a “programmer” from the future designed our reality to simulate the course of what the programmer considers to be ancient history—for whatever reason, maybe because he’s bored.
According to Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles roughly every two years, all of this will be theoretically possible in the future. Sooner or later, we’ll get to a place where simulating a few billion people—and making them believe they are sentient beings with the ability to control their own destinies—will be as easy as sending a stranger a picture of your genitals on your phone.
This hypothesis—versions of which have been kicked around for centuries—is becoming the trippy notion of the moment for philosophers, with people like Nick Bostrom, the director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, seriously considering the premise.
Until recently, the simulation argument hadn’t really attracted traditional researchers. That’s not to say he is the first scientist to predict our ability to run realistic simulations (among others, Ray Kurzweil did that in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines), but he is one of the first to argue we might already be living inside one. Rich has even gone one step further by attempting to prove his theories through physics, citing things like the observable pixelation of the tiniest matter and the eerie similarities between quantum mechanics, the mathematical rules that govern our universe, and the creation of video game environments.
Just think: Whenever you fuck up there could be the intergalactic version of an overweight 13-year-old Korean boy controlling you and screaming “Shit!” into an Xbox headset. It sort of takes the edge off things.
VICE: When did you first surmise that our reality could be a computer simulation?
Rich Terrile: Unless you believe there’s something magical about consciousness—and I don’t, I believe it’s the product of a very sophisticated architecture within the human brain—then you have to assume that at some point it can be simulated by a computer, or in other words, replicated. There are two ways one might accomplish an artificial human brain in the future. One of them is to reverse-engineer it, but I think it would be far easier to evolve a circuit or architecture that could become conscious. Perhaps in the next ten to 30 years we’ll be able to incorporate artificial consciousness into our machines.
We’ll get there that fast?
Right now the fastest NASA supercomputers are cranking away at about double the speed of the human brain. If you make a simple calculation using Moore’s Law, you’ll find that these supercomputers, inside of a decade, will have the ability to compute an entire human lifetime of 80 years—including every thought ever conceived during that lifetime—in the span of a month.
Now brace yourself: In 30 years we expect that a PlayStation—they come out with a new PlayStation every six to eight years, so this would be a PlayStation 7—will be able to compute about 10,000 human lifetimes simultaneously in real time, or about a human lifetime in an hour.
There’s how many PlayStations worldwide? More than 100 million, certainly. So think of 100 million consoles, each one containing 10,000 humans. That means, by that time, conceptually, you could have more humans living in PlayStations than you have humans living on Earth today.
So there’s a possibility we’re living in a super advanced game in some bloodshot-eyed goober’s PlayStation right now?
Exactly. The supposition here is how do you know it’s not 30 years in the future now and you’re not one of these simulations? Let me go back a step here. As scientists, we put physical processes into mathematical frameworks, or into an equation. The universe behaves in a very peculiar way because it follows mathematics. Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible.” The universe does not have to work that way. It does not have to be so easy to abbreviate that I can basically write down a few pages of equations that contain enough information to simulate it.
The other interesting thing is that the natural world behaves exactly the same way as the environment of Grand Theft Auto IV. In the game, you can explore Liberty City seamlessly in phenomenal detail. I made a calculation of how big that city is, and it turns out it’s a million times larger than my PlayStation 3. You see exactly what you need to see of Liberty City when you need to see it, abbreviating the entire game universe into the console. The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.
Which would explain why there have been reports of scientists observing pixels in the tiniest of microscopic images.
Right. The universe is also pixelated—in time, space, volume, and energy. There exists a fundamental unit that you cannot break down into anything smaller, which means the universe is made of a finite number of these units. This also means there are a finite number of things the universe can be; it’s not infinite, so it’s computable. And if it only behaves in a finite way when it’s being observed, then the question is: Is it being computed? Then there’s a mathematical parallel. If two things are mathematically equivalent, they’re the same. So the universe is mathematically equivalent to the simulation of the universe.
Do you play video games?
I do, actually, and I’ve played The Sims before, but coming up with this theory was the result of a combination of several things. I’m a planetary scientist, so I think a lot about the future of technology and where it might lead us. I also do a lot of work in evolutionary computation and artificial intelligence, where I’m dealing with the nature of consciousness. Plus, I began thinking about religion, or what you believe about the universe if you’re an atheist, which means you have to believe there’s an alternative origin story independent of a creator. And we have a pretty good one: the Big Bang. But you also have to think about engineering and if a creator could exist in our current universe. And if so, what are the requirements of said creator? After thinking about it, I realized that a creator of a universe is capable of changing the laws of physics and sculpting whatever this universe is, which I can do in a computer simulation. In fact, I’ll maybe be able to do that soon with conscious beings.
Beings with whom you could interact?
Maybe, or maybe I’d just let them go. They’d be living out their lives in an incredibly short amount of time. Maybe I could change the physical laws. I could make them live in places both hospitable and inhospitable. I could make it so that they’re completely alone—perhaps that’s a boundary condition for us, and explains why there are no aliens.
You seem really at peace with this concept. When I first heard about your theory I was incredibly bummed but, obviously, intrigued.
I find great inspiration in it, and I’ll tell you why: It tells me that we’re at the threshold of being able to create a universe—a simulation—and that we in turn could be living inside a simulation, which could be in turn yet another simulation. And our simulated beings could also create simulations. What I find intriguing is, if there is a creator, and there will be a creator in the future and it will be us, this also means if there’s a creator for our world, here, it’s also us. This means we are both God and servants of God, and that we made it all. What I find inspiring is that, even if we are in a simulation or many orders of magnitude down in levels of simulation, somewhere along the line something escaped the primordial ooze to become us and to result in simulations that made us. And that’s cool.
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