If only we were stuck in beta.
If the past 12 months have you feeling like you’re stuck in the beta version of some giant, buggy simulation, we’re right there with you, what with the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and depending on which side of the fence you sit, the US and UK elections.
But despite what Elon Musk says, the barrage of weirdness we’ve been experiencing lately is just the way of the Universe, says Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall, who once described the probability that we’re living in a giant video game of the future as “effectively zero”.
If you’re unfamiliar with the simulation hypothesis, it’s based in a 2003 paper by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom from the University of Oxford, who argued that at least one of the following propositions must be 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.
That ‘posthuman’ stage Bostrom is talking about refers to the probability that at some point in the future, our technology would be so advanced, a single computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind, using less than one-millionth of its processing power for 1 second.
Now imagine that a posthuman civilization in the distant future manages to build a massive network of these ‘ancestor-simulations’, into which we could upload replicas of the minds of our ancestors to play out their lives in a giant computer program.
Assuming these minds had a ‘consciousness’ – something that scientists have been considering recently – they would realistically demand something akin to human rights so they weren’t some kind of robotic slave race. But that’s starting to sound a whole lot like us…
In a nutshell, Bostrom proposed that humans will either almost certainly die out before any of this even happens (thanks, climate change); no advanced civilizations in the history of the Universe contained individuals with the means to build ancestor-simulations; or we almost certainly live in a simulation.
Last year, Elon Musk revealed that he’s a big believer in the simulation hypothesis, arguing that “the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions”.
And hell, it makes sense when you’re going through weird times like these that something other than “base reality” is at play.
But Lisa Randall is here to ruin all our fun, because when Corinne Purtill from Quartz asked her if the recent Oscars mix-up has her rethinking her anti-simulation stance, the answer is not even a little bit.
“At this point, we cannot prove that we do or don’t live in a simulation. More to the point, there is no reason to believe that we do,” she said.
“However, we can pretty much be sure that people will do amazing things and they will also mess up in spectacular ways.”
At a public debate last year moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Randall seized on Musk’s probability argument as one of the biggest reasons for why the simulation hypothesis doesn’t make sense.
“Part of the problem is that probabilities have to have a well-defined meaning, or are only useful when they have a well-defined meaning. So, among all possible scenarios we can actually say which one is more or less likely,” she said.
“When we run into infinities … it stops making sense. I mean, I could say really by probability I’m very likely to be Chinese, because there’s a lot more Chinese than Americans. But I’m clearly not Chinese. So, probabilities are tricky, and you have to be careful what you mean when you’re saying them.”
Randall added that it’s incredibly egotistical for us to assume that some highly advanced civilization would build simulations that look just like us, and the probability argument only works if countless alien civilizations saw the human species as something worth simulating.
“It’s just not based on well-defined probabilities. The argument says you’d have lots of things that want to simulate us. I actually have a problem with that,” she said.
“We mostly are interested in ourselves. I don’t know why this higher species would want to simulate us.”
Case closed? Randall thinks so, but there are still some in the simulation corner, including cosmologist Max Tegmark from MIT, who argued, “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical.”
And that sounds an awful lot like laws of physics, as James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, pointed out:
“In my research I found this very strange thing. I was driven to error-correcting codes – they’re what make browsers work. So why were they in the equations I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry? This brought me to the stark realisation that I could no longer say people like Max are crazy.”
It would be nice to blame all of the recent weirdness on a glitchy simulation, but Randall says we’re better off coming up with more realistic explanations for the mysteries of the world, rather than blaming it all on a giant computer program.
And that sounds a whole lot more scientific to us.
You can watch the whole debate below, and read the transcript here:
This piece first appeared in ScienceAlert.
All views expressed are those of the author. Top image credit: Getty Images.