Too few babies — not overpopulation — is likely to be a major problem this century.
- A new study used demographic data to explore current and projected population changes around the world. Europe and Asia are shrinking, while Africa is still growing.
- For the first time in history, people aged 65+ outnumber children younger than five.
- Underpopulation will cause serious challenges for sustainability.
The 20th century saw the greatest population surge in human history, rising globally from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000. That trend is over. The majority of demographic data suggest that, despite previous concerns about overpopulation crises, the bigger problem for most parts of the planet will be too few babies.
Data clearly reflects this phenomenon. In Japan, people buy more diapers for the elderly than babies. China, which long enforced a one-child policy, recently raised its child limit to three; the nation expects its population to peak and then decline in 2030. And the population growth rate in the U.S. is at historic lows, reminiscent of the Great Depression era.
A new study published in npj Urban Sustainability explores the future of underpopulation and how it's likely to affect sustainability goals. Using demographic data from United Nations reports, the study argues that the underpopulation problem is dynamic and twofold: Populations are simultaneously shrinking and ageing.
"Globally, people above 65 years old are the fastest-growing segments of the population and in 2019, for the first time in human history, they outnumbered children younger than 5 years old," the researchers wrote. "In 2020, 9% of the global population was above 65 years old, accounting for 728 million people. This population is projected to increase more than twofold, reaching 1.55 billion in 2050 and accounting to 16% of global population, at medium fertility rates."
These changes won't spread evenly across the globe. By 2050, the regions set to see the biggest increases in elderly populations include Europe, Asia, and North America, while most nations in Africa will continue to have a relatively young population.
The enormous impact of urbanization
A key metric for understanding population shifts is replacement level fertility, which is the average number of children women need to have to keep the population constant. This rate is roughly 2.1 — two children to replace the mother and father, with 0.1 added on because not all children survive to adulthood.
In dozens of nations, the replacement rate has fallen below 1.5, especially in Europe and East Asia. One reason for the drop is rapid urbanization. In 1950, about one-third of humans lived in urban areas, but that ratio is projected to double by 2050 with about 7 billion people living in cities, many of whom will do so for employment opportunities in our increasingly industrial- and technology-focused global economy.
Proportion of aged population (in 2020 and 2050) and urban population (in 2018).Jarzebski et al., npj Urban Sustainability, 2021.
Urbanization affects the population in two key ways. One is that city-dwellers tend to have fewer babies for reasons such as higher cost of living, easier access to contraception, and career-focused urban women choosing to forgo or delay having children, the study noted. Urban life also offers different incentives: Families may benefit from having more children in rural areas, but the same is not true in cities. This explains, in part, why China chose to relax its one-child policy for rural families in the 1980s.
Urbanization also tends to lower mortality rates due to increased wealth and access to healthcare. So, adults have fewer babies while also living longer. The researchers noted that "there may be strong interactions in that increases in the proportion of elderly in a country can put more economic and social pressure on working age population, further decreasing birth rates and/or postponing child births, thus driving fertility rates even lower."
Evolution of the relative levels of mortality and fertility rates over time.Jarzebski et al., npj Urban Sustainability, 2021.
Facing ageing and shrinking populations, some nations are already passing or exploring policies to boost fertility rates, including "baby bonuses," subsidized child care, and paid paternity and maternity leave.
If successful, these interventions could usher in a new demographic phase which the study calls the "vulnerable hourglass," characterized by low mortality but recently high fertility. This could result in a population with many young and elderly people, but relatively few working-age adults, who could become overburdened.
Stylised population pyramid transition.Jarzebski et al., npj Urban Sustainability, 2021.
The researchers noted that demographic shifts are complex, and much remains uncertain about how factors like urbanization will affect not only population levels but also the environment and socioeconomic conditions worldwide.
"Considering the quick pace of these changes, especially as the rate of ageing and population shrinking might be underestimated in official statistics, there is a need for urgent action," the study concluded.
Say hello to your new colleague, the Workplace Environment Architect.
As some countries begin to pull out of pandemic-induced lockdown, and the corporate engines of "return to the office" begin to whir, an open question hangs: What kind of jobs will people return to following months of work-from-home exile in "Remotopia"?
Will the online "big-bang" of the 2020s (when everything that could go online did go online) accelerate digitally enabled jobs? And which jobs will top the post-pandemic jobs list, in the next, new future of work?
Over the past several years, the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work has published a series of reports on the Jobs of the Future that propose new roles which will emerge over the next decade and be central to businesses and employees everywhere. Because of the virus, time has compressed, resulting in a handful of these jobs of the future becoming 'jobs of the now'.
And the top jobs are...
The following is a top-ten summary of professions emerging in the wake of the pandemic.
1. Work from Home Facilitator – Prior to 2020, it's estimated that less than 5% of companies had remote policies. Now, with the full post-pandemic expectation that remote work remains the norm, companies want to apply lessons learned to optimize the work-from-home experience. Far from being a futuristic job of tomorrow, WFH facilitators have become undeniable "jobs of the now."
2. Fitness Commitment Counsellor – We cringe at the extra kilos, pounds and stones packed-on during months of pandemic-induced lockdown. To remedy the situation, predictive and preventative approaches to counselling, paired with digital wearables like Apple Watches and FitBit dashboards couple human accountability to maintaining fitness. And per the Cognizant Jobs of the Future (CJoF) Index, it's a role that grew 28.7% in Q1 '21.
3. Smart Home Design Manager – A lasting lesson of the virus for many will be that "everyone's home is their castle." The rise of smart home design managers will boom as homes are built – or retrofitted – with dedicated home office spaces, replete with routers in the right place, soundproofing, separate voice-driven entrances, and even Gorilla Glass wall screens.
4. XR Immersion Counsellor – As Zoom-intensive "Remotopia" inexorably gives way to 3D realms of virtual space, XR immersion counselors will work with technical artists and software engineering, training and workforce collaboration leads to massively scale the rollout of best-in-class AR and VR for learn-by-doing workforce training and collaboration (using platforms like Strivr) or apprenticeships (such as Mursion, for example) to get employees productive – fast.
5. Workplace Environment Architect – Everything from health screenings to "elevator commutes" in post-pandemic office architecture is about to go through a major rethink. The importance of employee well-being, and how human-centered design of a company's real estate holdings can impact it, are now crucial to the future of work.
6. Algorithm Bias Auditor – "All online, all the time" lifestyles for work and leisure accelerated the competitive advantage derived from algorithms by digital firms everywhere. But from Brussels to Washington, given the increasing statutory scrutiny on data, it's a near certainty that when it comes to how they're built, verification through audits will help ensure the future workforce is also the fair workforce.
7. Data Detective – Openings for data scientists remain the fastest growing job in the tech-heavy "Algorithms, Automation and AI" family of the CJoF Index since its inception, and continued to see 42% growth in Q1 '21. Given this high demand, they're also scarce; that's where data detectives help bridge the gap to get companies to investigate the mysteries in big data.
8. Cyber Calamity Forecaster – Aside from COVID-19, it's arguable that the other, big catastrophe of 2020 was the continued onslaught of both massive state-sponsored cyberattacks like Solar Winds, down to individual bad actors promulgating ransomware exploits. The ability to forecast events like these is critical to forewarn of culture events. The CJoF Index bears this out: growth in openings for Cyber Calamity Forecasters grew 28% in Q1 '21.
9. Tidewater Architect – The global challenge of climate change and sea level rise will remain an omnipresent challenge. Tidewater architects will work with nature – not against it – in some of the biggest civil engineering projects of the 21st century. And per the CJoF Index, openings for these jobs grew 37% in Q1 '21.
10. Human-Machine Teaming Manager – Pandemic or no, the unceasing rise of robots in the workplace continues unabated. Human-Machine Teaming Managers will operate at the intersection of people and robots and create seamless collaborations. Already, openings for forerunner roles like robotics technicians grew 50% in the Q1 '21 CJoF Index.
While it is impossible to predict exactly how global labour markets will rebound in the wake of the virus, leaders can and should use the future of work as a prism for their own organizations to plan ahead. If there's one lesson the pandemic has taught us, it's to anticipate change.
Leaders need to see how the future of work will play out in real time through leading indicators that reveal how the jobs market is adapting in the face of technology-based innovation and disruption. The CJoF Index uses real data on US job openings to see the imagined possibilities of jobs of the future starting to emerge.
By combining strategic planning resources like "21 Jobs of the Future" and the CJoF Index, it's possible to get a look into the not-too-distant future to see which roles are the top contenders in the post-COVID future.
2021 will be a reset moment, a period where more examples of the theoretical become "jobs-made-real". Before they can be built, however, jobs of the future have to be dreamed - and this requires vision and some imagination.
How can researchers map something as complex as the human brain?
- Brain mapping is an attempt to identify the location of everything in the brain.
- An accurate map of the brain would immeasurably enhance our ability to understand how it works.
- The project is massive, involving multiple fields of biomedical research and expensive cutting-edge technology.
Brain mapping is one of the hottest current areas of research.
The brain is nothing short of amazing. Billions of neurons are in there — the current best guess is about 86 billion — and a roughly equal number of non-neuronal cells. The number of interconnections, or synapses, across which neurons communicate via chemical and electrical signals is believed to be about 125 trillion. There's a whole universe in there, even though the average adult brain weighs merely three pounds and measures just 140 mm x 167 mm x 93 mm.
Though we know a lot about the anatomy of the brain, its functions remain largely enigmatic. For instance, what is the biological mechanism that encodes memories? On a computer, files are encoded digitally with a series of ones and zeroes, a type of discrete storage. Cassette tapes are analog recordings, and information is stored magnetically. How does the brain store information? We don't know. Where consciousness is located in the brain — that is, the parts and functions that make us "us" — is likewise shrouded in mystery.
The challenge is described well by the journal Nature:
"Neuroscientists know frighteningly little about the brain's complexity. They have sketched out the broad anatomy of the brain, and realize that individual functions… are mediated by circuitry that crosses anatomical borders. They can examine the detailed electrical activity of small numbers of neurons. They can wield imaging technologies that show which brain areas are activated during defined tasks, such as viewing pleasant or unpleasant pictures. But those tiny (in brain terms) pieces of information have not led neuroscientists to the big picture: what we mean by human consciousness, what makes us our individual selves or why some people develop psychiatric disorders. Neuroscientists need to be able to join the dots — and there are a lot of dots."
As intimidating as this is, neuroscience is making incremental progress. We can correlate various actions and thoughts with brain activity. Scientists at Berkeley, for example, can tell what part of your brain will exhibit electrical activity when you read certain words and phrases.
Two types of "brain mapping"
Before we dive further into the field of brain mapping, let's first define what we're talking about. There are actually two types of brain mapping.
The first type, which is what we are concerned with, is described by the Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics as "the study of the anatomy and function of the brain and spinal cord through the use of imaging, immunohistochemistry, molecular and optogenetics, stem cell and cellular biology, engineering, neurophysiology, and nanotechnology." One might fairly add physics and quantum physics to that list.
Credit: santiago silver / Adobe Stock / Big Think
The second type of brain mapping deals with identifying areas of the brain using qEEG technology in order to strengthen or heal them through neurofeedback training. Neurofeedback practitioners claim some impressive therapeutic value for people with all sorts of conditions relating to the brain, including ADHD, autism, depression, and anxiety. Some experts have expressed skepticism about some such claims. The jury's still out on this type of brain mapping.
What kind of map could map the brain?
A brain map, therefore, could be something like an atlas — a collection of maps that document various neural pathways. But, unlike a road map, it can't be two-dimensional. A brain map of the cortex alone would have to be three-dimensional.
The number of interconnections, or synapses, across which neurons communicate via chemical and electrical signals is believed to be about 125 trillion.
The cortex, or gray matter, which contains billions of neurons and synapses is folded in such a way that sections that would be distant from each other come into close proximity. This is useful because it shortens the distance that signals have to cross from one part of the brain to another. The folds also greatly increase the cortex's surface area, which means we can cram more gray matter inside our skulls.
Folding itself is implicated in some neural disorders, and scientists wonder if we might one day be able to modify a brain's folding.
Credit: PhD Comics
A need for unprecedented collaboration
- Maps have always betrayed the bias of their creators. Even neural cartographers will inevitably develop maps that depict the brain according to their understanding of its workings. At the same time, it's exciting to imagine breakthroughs that could occur should a map unexpectedly not conform to its makers expectations.
- One size does not fit all. Scientists strongly suspect each brain is at least somewhat unique. To construct brain maps that encompass differences between us, researchers will have to engage in some generalizing that will inevitably reduce their accuracy as it enhances their universality.
- Financial considerations make the requisite collaboration between scientists and institutions difficult. The hardware and expertise required mean that brain mapping will be costly. However, for those who discover new medical treatments or technologies along the way, the endeavor could prove profitable. Thus, some will no doubt feel that they have financial incentives not to share information.
Ultimately, La Monica's third consideration touches upon what may be the human brain mapping's biggest underlying challenge. As UCLA Health notes, the project is the polar opposite of "reductionistic approaches in medical science." Instead, "brain mapping integrates many sources of information to produce a holistic view, the value of which is greater than the sum of its parts."
Credit: gerasimov174 / Adobe Stock
This will demand an unprecedented level of collaboration and cooperation between organizations and scientists from a broad swath of scientific disciplines.
Brain mapping for the win
There is almost nothing about mapping the human brain that will be easy. From logistical issues (like the open exchange of information) to scientific challenges (such as technological and theoretical advances), much will be required to make sense of the human brain.
With the brain so central to our being, there's a tremendous amount of research relating to it. There's a continual stream of new insights regarding the way it functions and the ways it sometimes doesn't function so well.
For scientists seeking to understand the brain, and for doctors working to help their patients enjoy life to its fullest, a comprehensive map that brings all of the best, most recent information together is more than worth the Herculean effort required to make it happen.
Creating an afterlife—or a simulation of one—would take vast amounts of energy. Some scientists think the best way to capture that energy is by building megastructures around stars.
- In a 2018 paper, researchers Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov published a paper outlining various ways humans might someday be able to achieve immortality or resurrection.
- One way involves creating a simulated afterlife, in which artificial intelligence would build simulations of past human lives.
- Getting the necessary power for the simulation might require building a Dyson sphere, which is a theoretical megastructure that orbits a star and captures its energy.
Is there an afterlife?
Despite centuries of inquiry, nobody's made progress on this fundamental question, and perhaps nobody ever will. So, maybe a better question is: Can humans create an afterlife?
Some scientists think so.
In 2018, Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, both members of the Russian Transhumanist Movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways science might someday make immortality and resurrection possible. Called the "Immortality Roadmap," the project describes the ways people might be able to extend lifespan or live forever, from using cryonics to freeze themselves, to constructing nanobots for "treatment of injuries and cell cyborgization."
But the Immortality Roadmap mentions one particularly grandiose road to immortality. Outlined in "Plan C" of the project, the idea is to create a simulation of humanity's past through artificial intelligence that's able to digitally reconstruct people.
The AI would use DNA and other information about individuals to create models of those individuals within a simulation, allowing recently deceased people to experience another chance at life — or, at least an approximation of life.
"The main idea of a resurrection-simulation is that if one takes the DNA of a past person and subjects it to the same developmental condition, as well as correcting the development based on some known outcomes, it is possible to create a model of a past person which is very close to the original," the researchers wrote.
"DNA samples of most people who lived in past 1 to 2 centuries could be extracted via global archeology. After the moment of death, the simulated person is moved into some form of the afterlife, perhaps similar to his religious expectations, where he meets his relatives."
But would that digital copy really be you, or rather a fundamentally different digital being that resembles you? What about the other "people" that inhabit the simulation, would they be "real"? And would people actually want to repeat their lives over again, perhaps forever?
Of course, these are questions that Immortality Roadmap can't answer. But what's clear is that, if technology ever becomes able to create a "resurrection simulation," it's going to require vast amounts of computing power — far more than what currently exists on Earth. That's where Dyson spheres come into play.
In 1960, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson published a paper describing a peculiar strategy scientists could use to detect signs of alien life: look for stars encompassed by gigantic megastructures.
Why? Dyson figured that if spacefaring alien civilizations do exist, then they must have figured out a way to generate vast amounts of energy. One theoretical way aliens could do that is through harnessing the power of stars: By surrounding a star with orbiting structures that capture solar energy, a civilization could theoretically generate far more energy than they could on a planet.
That's the basic idea behind Dyson spheres. Of course, modern science is far from being able to build such a complex megastructure, and it's unclear whether it'll ever be possible.
"An actual sphere around the sun is completely impractical," Stuart Armstrong, a research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute who has studied megastructure concepts, told Popular Mechanics in 2020.
There are many questions about and arguments against the feasibility of Dyson spheres. Obviously, our modern engineering capabilities wouldn't enable us to build a structure that big and complex, and then transport it to the sun. And even if engineers could build an enormous sun shell, we don't have materials with enough tensile strength to hold together the structure once it's surrounding the sun.
Other potential problems: space debris colliding with the sphere, inefficiencies in transporting the energy back to Earth, and having to perform maintenance on a megastructure that's dangerously close to the sun. In short, the Dyson sphere is a very theoretical concept.
Credit: vexworldwide via Adobe Stock
But some people think building a Dyson sphere is more feasible than it seems. In 2012, the bioethicist and transhumanist George Dvorsky published a blog post titled "How to build a Dyson sphere in five (relatively) easy steps." His strategy, in short, calls for sending autonomous robots into space, where they would:
- Get energy
- Mine Mercury
- Get materials into orbit
- Make solar collectors
- Extract energy
"The idea is to build the entire swarm in iterative steps and not all at once. We would only need to build a small section of the Dyson sphere to provide the energy requirements for the rest of the project. Thus, construction efficiency will increase over time as the project progresses," Dvorsky wrote.
"We're going to have to mine materials from Mercury. Actually, we'll likely have to take the whole planet apart. The Dyson sphere will require a horrendous amount of material—so much so, in fact, that, should we want to completely envelope the sun, we are going to have to disassemble not just Mercury, but Venus, some of the outer planets, and any nearby asteroids as well."
Credit: ALEXEY TURCHIN
Turchin echoed a similar idea to Popular Mechanics, acknowledging that while humans currently can't build a Dyson sphere, "nanorobots could do it."
Still, even if scientists someday manage to create a Dyson sphere that's able to power a resurrection simulation, there's a good chance many people won't take part: Surveys repeatedly show that most people would not opt to live forever if given the choice.
What happens when simulation theory becomes more than a fascinating thought experiment?
- 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:
- The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage
- Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof)
- 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.