How not to be real
There is nothing wrong with your television set.
At the risk of sounding like a complete lunatic (God forbid…), I’ve always had a nagging doubt that I might not actually exist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to throw myself off a tall building in an attempt to prove that life is some kind of giant cosmic joke, it’s just that I occasionally view the world with the same kind of suspicion usually reserved for Internet get-rich-quick schemes.
When you really think about it, life is a set of staggering coincidences starting somewhere in the murky depths of space and time with a generally acknowledged loud party-popper. This somehow leads to a planet capable of sustaining life and a dominant species which reveres iPhones, cossets guinea pigs and fears spiders more than its own death.
Perhaps the very incomprehensible nature of our existence is proof of a superior guiding intelligence, but for me the whole setup appears a bit too contrived for my liking, which led me to some zany postulations about the nature of existence.
Three is the magic number:
I got to thinking about it late one night after watching far too much sci-fi and suddenly had what felt like an epiphanous realisation. To be fair it could have been the pepperoni pizza repeating on me, but the upshot was this: What if the whole world we live in is just a computer simulation? Okay so perhaps not the most original thought, especially given the fact I had just been watching the Matrix, but actually the more I thought about it, the more it seemed kind of…inevitable.
You see the key to the whole shebang is what will happen to humanity in the future from a technological perspective. The way I see it there are only three options:
- We stagnate technically. For this to be realised we must be at or very near the pinnacle of all technical achievement already. Considering the furthest we’ve ventured into space is the metaphorical equivalent of an ant taking his first hesitant step on a 1,000,000,000 times round the world journey, I think it’s fair to say we still have quite a way to go.
We renounce technology and go live in the trees. Hurray! The whole world becomes a fantastical hippy commune; we all mutate growing blue skin and long tails and run around in gorgeous 3D with little regard for a plot. Not likely in my opinion.
Technology continues to improve. Rapidly.
Now of the three options above it seems that number 3 is the most likely. This is wildly assuming that humanity doesn’t destroy itself first with ridiculously large bombs or weaponised diseases. This is always a possibility of course, but as this is an upbeat hub I’m going to assume humanity defies the total extinction odds to survive to see a technologically advanced future.
Down the rabbit hole:
I know that things are getting a bit weird on this hub and I have to warn you it’s about to get downright balmy. Feel free to leave now without reading further, but if you’d like to stick around and discover more, take my virtual hand and I’ll lead you on a little tour of my slightly twisted logic. I promise I won’t drop you. Not too often anyway.
The key to understanding our future technological capabilities is to look at how far we’ve come in the last few years. Computers are doing things that we just couldn’t have imagined even 50 years ago. In 1972, Atari marketed the arcade game Pong. Obviously I don’t personally remember this because I’m far too young and good looking, but I’ve been reliably informed it consisted of a couple of straight lines batting a square “ball” across the screen. Time slip forward just 38 years (you don’t even need a telephone box) and we’ve got whole gaming worlds created online where kids can pretend to be sword swinging, spell slinging adults and adults get to behave like, well, kids. Graphically these games are immense with huge gaming worlds displaying the relative position of everyone and everything perfectly in near real time. Computing power doesn’t just stop there though. Look at the movies that are created with computers these days. Avatar is a great example of the power of computing. Even if you hated the movie, you had to appreciate the gorgeous detail of the totally immersive and believable world the developers had created.
The reason I’m banging on about this is because, put simply, we can already create realistic computer simulations which are practically indistinguishable from the real world visually. If that’s how far we can push technology in 38 years, how far forward will it be 500 years from now? How much further forward in 1000 years? These are scary thoughts.
No.5 is alive:
The point is this: If you subscribe to the theory that technology will continue to advance, then it is pretty much a given that in the future humanity will have the capacity and the technology to create virtual worlds which are visually indistinct from our current world. The only thing missing is artificial intelligence and scientists are working pretty hard on that. The human brain is basically a computer. Sure it’s a very complex computer, not based on silicon and full of squishy bits, but it’s a computer nonetheless. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to imagine that one day we will be able to model the human brain completely within a computer simulation. At that point we would potentially have self-aware programmed constructs living within a simulated world that might not even be aware they were simulations.
When you consider that computing power will likely be near limitless in the future (certainly in comparison to today’s standards), with squidge-illions of yottabytes of storage, oceans of processing power and more memory than you could possibly shake a stick at, the question really becomes, “what will our descendants do with all this computing power?”.
The answer that occurred to me was our descendants are likely to want to model periods of history. I’m guessing that in the future virtually constructed worlds will be available where you can log in and take a look at what life in the past was all about. Fancy a quick look at the 1960’s? Well just hook up to the 60’s simulation and away you go. Prefer the reign of Queen Victoria? It will be easy to switch you into that instead. I imagine these worlds to be fully immersive. Once you’re inside you would be able to touch, smell, feel and importantly, talk to people there. Those people would likely not know they were part of a simulation, but would instead just go about their daily lives blissfully unaware a giant computer in the sky was actually thinking them up. Each individual within the world would simply be a computer process, a thread of incredibly complicated programming which exactly replicated a real human being.
The amazing thing is I’m not alone in thinking this. There is a completely wacky branch of science called futurology where very serious professors discuss these kinds of theories in complex maths and propositional logic and refer to the virtual worlds as “Ancestor Simulations”. It seems that however crazy a theory you come up with, there is a mad scientist somewhere that not only got there before you but already has a lightning rod stuck in it to see if they can make it live.
One world to rule them all:
So like a sloth wading through treacle I’m finally getting to my main point. Given the potentially limitless capacity available in the future to create these Ancestor Simulations, it’s easy to imagine that a lot of them will be produced. It’s also possible some simulations will be created of worlds that are historically ahead of us in time (a bit of a mind twister this, but basically simulations of worlds that are in our future but are still in our descendant’s past). These simulations might even contain simulated computers that are capable of creating simulations in their own right. Simulations within simulations if you like. What this leads to is an exponential effect where there are literally millions of possibilities of virtual worlds but only one real one. Think of it like standing between two mirrors. Your reflection seems to go on for ever in both directions, but there’s only one you actually standing there.
Now if you’ve followed all the logic above and somehow bizarrely agreed with it, then the only conclusion you can possibly reach is that it’s statistically much more likely that you are within one of the simulations than you are not. Put it like this: If everyone who was in the real world and everyone who was in a simulation placed a bet that they were “real”, 99.99999% of them would lose the bet because there would be so many more simulated people than real people.
So, to answer my original question and finally conclude this hub, how not to be real is simply to do nothing. Using twisted logic, mad scientists and suspicious statistics I have just proved that in fact none of us are actually real anyway.