The simulation hypothesis is fun to talk about, but believing it requires an act of faith.
- The simulation hypothesis posits that everything we experience was coded by an intelligent being, and we are part of that computer code.
- But we cannot accurately reproduce natural laws with computer simulations.
- Faith is fine, but science requires evidence and logic.
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.
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"<p><strong>Throughout 2020, many people seemed to talk about the world being a simulation, especially on Twitter. What do you make of that?</strong></p><p>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?"</p><p>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."</p><p>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].</p><p><strong>How do you view the connections between religious ideas and simulation theory?</strong><br></p><p>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.</p><p>I think that connection made itself clearest when I talked to Erik Davis, who wrote a book called "<a href="https://books.google.com/books/about/TechGnosis.html?id=lh_XAAAAMAAJ&source=kp_book_description" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Techgnosis</a>", 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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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].</p>
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"<p><strong>How did your views on simulation theory change since you started working on this documentary?</strong></p><p>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.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/form-and-resonance/are-we-living-in-a-simulation-52ddf27c04cd" target="_blank">Emily Pothast</a> brought up the idea of <a href="https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-platos-cave/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plato's cave</a> 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.</p><p>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.</p><p><strong><span></span>Do you see any connections between mental illness, or an inability to empathize with others, and some peoples' obsession with simulation theory?</strong></p><p>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.</p>
Credit: K_e_n via AdobeStock<p><strong>Why do you think people are attracted to simulation theory?</strong></p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p><strong>If technology became sufficiently advanced, would you create a simulated world?</strong></p><p>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.</p><p><strong>If you discovered you were living in a simulation, would it change the way you behave in the world?</strong></p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p>
A physicist creates an AI algorithm that predicts natural events and may prove the simulation hypothesis.
- Princeton physicist Hong Qin creates an AI algorithm that can predict planetary orbits.
- The scientist partially based his work on the hypothesis which believes reality is a simulation.
- The algorithm is being adapted to predict behavior of plasma and can be used on other natural phenomena.
Physicist Hong Qin with images of planetary orbits and computer code.
Credit: Elle Starkman
Are we living in a simulation? | Bill Nye, Joscha Bach, Donald Hoffman | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b593a3858896012a05180b80b4d24bcd"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KDcNVZjaNSU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Their goal is a digital model of the Earth that depicts climate change in all of its complexity.
- The European Union envisions an ambitious digital twin of the Earth to simulate climate change.
- The project is a unique collaboration between Earth science and computer experts.
- The digital twin will allow policymakers to audition expansive geoengineering projects meant to address climate change.
Who are the planet-builders?<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY5MDMzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTA0NzY2MH0.yG8KyIXYBtiAQB0_9KJLPFhvOj2ZvpBy04YPffMIEJM/img.jpg?width=980" id="4548e" width="1440" height="833" data-rm-shortcode-id="a67622f9b54d0fa77c5505f9b4c51e59" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Watching time go by on the digital Earth<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY5MDMzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTIyNzQ5MX0.NrXxzMuA8NcrcSIaCivN3zRlsc-KgVpYiecDlLKN4Mw/img.jpg?width=980" id="b1bcf" width="1440" height="988" data-rm-shortcode-id="20b5d199d3f30111490b0ec34c56808d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Logan Armstrong/Unsplash<p>The basic idea of the digital twin is that it will allow scientists to observe climate change in motion as it progresses. "If you are planning a two-meter high dike in The Netherlands, for example," says Bauer in an ETH press release, "I can run through the data in my digital twin and check whether the dike will in all likelihood still protect against expected extreme events in 2050."</p><p>Most important will be trying out geo-engineering ideas and seeing how they track over time. The press release specifically notes the value the twin will bring to "strategic planning of fresh water and food supplies or wind farms and solar plants." </p>
Aging models and AI<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY5MDM0Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NjM3Njc3Mn0.7Dm8rcv_bcHSvKlxIvaQ3wu3pC3wjKbWeScQ_nQyLlA/img.jpg?width=980" id="be2db" width="1440" height="720" data-rm-shortcode-id="abe34ff694e5da65b14af5f22e7f2275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: ECMWF<p>Capturing the subtleties and intricacies of our planet faithfully in order to model plausible outcomes is going to require an equally complex computer model. Construction of the digital Earth begins with the refinement of current weather models, with a goal of eventually being able to simulate conditions in as small an area as a kilometer. Current models are not nearly as fine-grained, a shortcoming that hampers their ability to make accurate predictions given that the large weather systems are really aggregates of many smaller meteorological systems influencing each other.</p><p>The authors of the paper assert that today's meteorological models fall far short of what's possible, their development having basically become stuck in place about a decade ago. They say that current models take advantage of only about 5 percent of today's available processing power. The solution is the tight collaboration between Earth scientists and computer scientists at the heart of Destination Earth to develop cutting-edge models.</p><p>The twin will also be able to take advantage of rapidly advancing developments in artificial intelligence. Obviously, AI is very good at detecting patterns in large amounts of data. The study anticipates multiple roles for AI here, including the promotion of operational efficiency with new ways of accurately representing physical processes, as well as the development of novel data-compression strategies.</p>
A massive endeavor<p> The team will feed the twin massive amounts of weather data—as well as data regarding human activity—to get the digital planet going and then continually as new data emerge, making the model more and more complex and more and more accurate. </p><p> At full scale, a digital twin of an entire planet would require a suitably massive amount of horsepower. The authors of the study propose a system with 20,000 <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphics_processing_unit" target="_blank">GPUs</a> that will require 20 megawatts to run. And since the ultimate goal is to help the Earth and not make things worse, they say they'd like to site its digital twin in an area power from a CO<sup>2</sup>-netural electrical source. </p>
Controversial physics theory says reality around us behaves like a computer neural network.
- Physicist proposes that the universe behaves like an artificial neural network.
- The scientist's new paper seeks to reconcile classical physics and quantum mechanics.
- The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".