‘A Glitch in the Matrix’ documentary explores the dark side of simulation theory

What happens when simulation theory becomes more than a fascinating thought experiment?

‘A Glitch in the Matrix’ documentary explores the dark side of simulation theory
Credit: A Glitch in the Matrix / Rodney Ascher
  • Simulation theory proposes that our world is likely a simulation created by beings with super-powerful computers.
  • In "A Glitch in the Matrix," filmmaker Rodney Ascher explores the philosophy behind simulation theory, and interviews a handful of people who believe the world is a simulation.
  • "A Glitch in the Matrix" premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to stream online.

Are you living in a computer simulation?

If you've spent enough time online, you've probably encountered this question. Maybe it was in one of the countless articles on simulation theory. Maybe it was during the chaos of 2020, when Twitter users grew fond of saying things like "we're living in the worst simulation" or "what a strange timeline we're living in." Or maybe you saw that clip of Elon Musk telling an audience at a tech conference that the probability of us not living in a simulation is "one in billions."

It might sound ludicrous. But Twitter memes and quotes from "The Matrix" aside, simulation theory has some lucid arguments to back it up. The most cited explanation came in 2003, when Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper claiming at least one of the following statements is true:

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage
  2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof)
  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation

The basic idea: Considering that computers are growing exponentially powerful, it's reasonable to think that future civilizations might someday be able to use supercomputers to create simulated worlds. These worlds would probably be populated by simulated beings. And those beings might be us.

In the new documentary "A Glitch in the Matrix", filmmaker Rodney Ascher sends viewers down the rabbit hole of simulation theory, exploring the philosophical ideas behind it, and the stories of a handful of people for whom the theory has become a worldview.

The film features, for example, a man called Brother Laeo Mystwood, who describes how a series of strange coincidences and events — a.k.a "glitches in the matrix" — led him to believe the world is a simulation. Another interviewee, a man named Paul Gude, said the turning point for him came in childhood when he was watching people sing at a church service; the "absurdity of the situation" caused him to realize "none of this is real."

But others have darker reactions after coming to believe the world is a simulation. For example, if you believe you're in a simulation, you might also think that some people in the simulation are less real than you. A few of the film's subjects describe the idea of other people being "chemical robots" or "non-player characters," a video-game term used to describe characters who behave according to code.

The documentary's most troubling sequences features the story of Joshua Cooke. In 2003, Cooke was 19 years old and suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness when he became obsessed with "The Matrix." He believed he was living in a simulation. On a February night, he shot and killed his adoptive parents with a shotgun. The murder trial spawned what's now known as the "Matrix defense," a version of the insanity defense in which a defendant claims to have been unable to distinguish reality from simulation when they committed a crime.

Of course, Cooke's case lies on the extreme side of the simulation theory world, and there's nothing inherently nihilistic about simulation theory or people who believe in it. After all, there are many ways to think about simulation theory and its implications, just as there are many different ways to think about religion.

And as with religion, a key question in simulation theory is: Who created the simulation and why?

In his 2003 paper, Bostrom argued that future human civilizations might be interested in creating "ancestor simulations," meaning that our world might be a simulation of a human civilization that once existed in base reality; it'd be a way for future humans to study their past. Other explanations range from the simulation being some form of entertainment for future humans, to the simulation being the creation of aliens.

"If this is a simulation, there's sort of a half dozen different explanations for what this is for," Ascher told Big Think. "And some of them are completely opposite from one another."

To learn more about simulation theory and those who believe in it, we spoke to Ascher about "A Glitch in the Matrix", which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to stream online. (This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.)

Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"

Throughout 2020, many people seemed to talk about the world being a simulation, especially on Twitter. What do you make of that?

I see that just as sort of evidence of how deep the idea [of simulation theory] is penetrating our culture. You know, I'm addicted to Twitter, and everyday something strange happens in the news, and people make some jokes about, "This simulation is misfiring," or, "What am I doing in the dumbest possible timeline?"

I enjoy those conversations. But two things about them: On the one hand, they're using simulation theory as a way to let off steam, right? "Well, this world is so absurd, perhaps that's an explanation for it," or, "Maybe at the end of the day it doesn't matter that much because this isn't the real world."

But also, when you talk about the strange or horrifying, or bizarre unlikely things that happen as evidence [for the simulation], then that begs the question, well what is the simulation for, and why would these things happen? They could be an error or glitch in the matrix. [...] Or those strange things that happen might be the whole point [of the simulation].

How do you view the connections between religious ideas and simulation theory?

I kind of went in [to making the film] thinking that this was, in large part, going to be a discussion of the science. And people very quickly went to, you know, religious and sort of ethical places.

I think that connection made itself clearest when I talked to Erik Davis, who wrote a book called "Techgnosis", which is specifically about the convergence of religion and technology. He wanted to make it clear that, from his point of view, simulation theory was sort of a 21st-century spin on earlier ideas, some of them quite ancient.

To say that [religion and simulation theory] are exactly the same thing is sort of pushing it. [...] You could say that if simulation theory is correct, and that we are genuinely in some sort of digitally created world, that earlier traditions wouldn't have had the vocabulary for that.

So, they would have talked about it in terms of magic. But by the same token, if those are two alternative, if similar, explanations for how the world works, I think one of the interesting things that it does is that either one suggests something different about the creator itself.

In a religious tradition, the creator is this omnipotent, supernatural being. But in simulation theory, it could be a fifth-grader who just happens to have access to an incredibly powerful computer [laughs].

Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"

How did your views on simulation theory change since you started working on this documentary?

I think what's changed my mind the most in the course of working on the film is how powerful it is as a metaphor for understanding the here-and-now world, without necessarily having to believe in [simulation theory] literally.

Emily Pothast brought up the idea of Plato's cave as sort of an early thought experiment that is kind of resonant of simulation theory. And she expands upon it, talking about how, in 21st-century America, the shadows that we're seeing of the real world are much more vivid. You know, the media diets that we all absorb, that are all reflections of the real world.

But the danger that the ones you're seeing aren't accurate—whether that's just signal loss from mistakes made by journalists working in good faith, or whether it's intentional distortion by somebody with an agenda—that leads to a really provocative idea about the artificial world, the simulated world, that each of us create, and then live in, based on our upbringing, our biases, and our media diet. That makes me stop and pause from time to time.

Do you see any connections between mental illness, or an inability to empathize with others, and some peoples' obsession with simulation theory?

It can certainly lead to strange, obsessive thinking. [Laughs] For some reason, I feel like I have to defend [people who believe in simulation theory], or qualify it. But you can get into the same sort of non-adaptive behavior obsessing on, you know, the Beatles or the Bible, or anything. [Charles] Manson was all obsessed on "The White Album." He didn't need simulation theory to send him down some very dark paths.

Credit: K_e_n via AdobeStock

Why do you think people are attracted to simulation theory?

You might be attracted to it because your peer group is attracted to it, or people that you admire are attracted to it, which lends it credibility. But also like, just the way you and I are talking about it now, it's a juicy topic that extends in a thousand different ways.

And despite the cautionary tales that come up in the film, I've had a huge amount of fascinating social conversations with people because of my interest in simulation theory, and I imagine it's true about a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about it. I don't know if they all think about it alone, right? Or if it's something that they enjoy talking about with other people.

If technology became sufficiently advanced, would you create a simulated world?

It'd be very tempting, especially if I could add the power of flight or something like that [laughs]. I think the biggest reason not to, and I just saw this on a comment on Twitter yesterday, and I don't know if it had occurred to me, but what might stop me is all the responsibility I'd feel to all the people within it, right? If this were an accurate simulation of planet Earth, the amounts of suffering that occurs there for all the creatures and what they went through, that might be what stops me from doing it.

If you discovered you were living in a simulation, would it change the way you behave in the world?

I think I would need more information about what the nature of the purpose of the simulation is. If I found out that I was the only person in a very elaborate virtual-reality game, and I had forgotten who I really was, well then I would act very differently then I would if I learned this is an accurate simulation of 21st-century America as conceived by aliens or people in the far future, in which case I think things would stay more or less the same — you know, my closest personal relationships, and my responsibility to my family and friends.

Just that we're in a simulation isn't enough. If all we know is that it's a simulation, kind of the weirdness is that that word "simulation" starts to mean less. Because whatever qualities the real world has and ours doesn't is inconceivable to us. This is still as real as real gets.

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Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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