The Simulation Hypothesis
In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Plato theorised that humans do not perceive the world as it really is. All we can see is shadows on a wall. In 2003, the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper which formalised an argument to prove Plato was right. The paper argued that one of the following three statements is true:
1. We will go extinct fairly soon
2. Advanced civilisations don’t produce simulations containing entities which think they are naturally-occurring sentient intelligences. (This could be because it is impossible.)
3. We are in a simulation
The reason for this is that if it is possible, and civilisations can become advanced without self-destructing, then there will be an enormous number of simulations, and it is vanishingly unlikely that any randomly selected civilisation (like us) is a naturally-occurring one.
Some people – like me – find this argument pretty convincing. As we will hear later, some of us have added twists. But some people go even further, and speculate about how we might bust out of the simulation.
One such person is Roman Yampolskiy, a computer scientist at the University of Louisville, and director of a cyber-security lab. He has just published a paper (here) in which he views the challenge of busting out of the simulation through the lens of cyber security. The paper starts from the hypothesis that we are in a simulation and asks if we can do something about it. The paper is a first step: it doesn’t aim to provide a working solution. He explains his thinking in the latest episode of The London Futurist Podcast.
Roman is pretty convinced that we are in a simulation, for a number of reasons. Quantum physics observer effects remind him of how in video games, graphics are only rendered if a players is looking at the environment. Evolutionary algorithms don’t work well after a week or two, which suggests that engineering is required to generate sufficiently complex agents. And the hard problem of consciousness becomes easier if you consider us as players in a simulation.
Parallels with cyber security
Some people think the simulation hypothesis is time-wasting and meaningless because it could never be tested, but Roman argues it is possible to bring the hypothesis into the domain of science using approaches from cyber security and AI safety. For instance, the idea of AI boxing – isolating a superintelligent AI to prevent it from causing harm – is simply inverted by the simulation hypothesis, placing us inside the box instead of a superintelligence. He thinks we should allocate as much intellectual effort to busting out of the simulation as we do to the hypothesis itself.
Most people who have looked at it in detail argue that AI boxing is impractical, but Roman speculates that analysing the hypothesis might either teach us how to escape, or how to prevent an AI from escaping. That is probably not a true parallel, though. The AI in a box is much smarter than us, whereas we are presumably much less smart than our simulators.
An AI in a box will plead with us, cajole us, and threaten us very convincingly. Can we do these things to our simulators? Pleading doesn’t seem to work, and the simulators also don’t seem to care about the suffering within the world they have simulated. This makes you wonder about their motivations, and perhaps fear them. Lots of possible motivations have been suggested, including entertainment, and testing a scientific hypothesis.
We do have one advantage over the simulators. They have to foil all our attempts to escape, whereas we only have to succeed one time. This makes Roman optimistic about escape in the long term. But perhaps the simulators would reset the universe if they see us trying to escape, re-winding it to before that point.
The Problem of Evil
To paraphrase what Woody Allen once said about God, the trouble with the simulators is they are under-achievers. Either they don’t care about immense injustice and suffering, or they are unable to prevent it. Some people find this existence of suffering (what theologians call the Problem of Evil) to be an argument against the simulation hypothesis. One (perhaps rather callous) way to escape the Problem of Evil in the hypothesis is to posit that the people who we observe to be suffering terribly are actually analogous to non-player characters in a video game.
In fact, if we do live in a simulation, it is likely that a great deal of our universe is “painted in”. This can lead you to solipsism, the idea that you are the only person who really exists.
The Fermi Paradox
The simulation hypothesis may be the best explanation of the Fermi Paradox. Enrico Fermi, a 20th century physicist, asked why, in a vast universe with billions of galaxies that is 13.7 billion years old, we have never seen a signal from another intelligent civilisation. An advanced civilisation could, for instance, periodically occlude a star with large satellites in order to send a signal. Travelling at the speed of light, this signal would cross our galaxy in a mere 100,000 years, just 0.0007% of the universe’s history. So why don’t we see any signals?
One suggestion is that we are being quarantined until we are more mature – like the prime directive in Star Trek. But it seems implausible that 100% of civilisations would obey any such rule or norm for billions of years. An alternative explanation is that the arrival of superintelligence is always fatal, but if so, why would the superintelligences also always go extinct?
The Dark Forest scenario posits that every advanced civilisation keeps quiet because they fear malevolent actors. But in a sufficiently large population of intelligences, some would surely be nonchalant, negligent, or just plain arrogant enough to breach this rule. After all, we ourselves have sent signals, and there are still people who want to do so. Other civilisations might send signals because they are going extinct from causes they cannot stop, and they want to broadcast that they did exist, or to ask for help.
It is not hard to conclude that the universe is empty of intelligent life apart from us, which would be explained by the simulation hypothesis.
The Economic Twist
It may be that the purpose of our simulation, if indeed we are in one, is to discover the best way to create superintelligence. The current moment is the most significant in all human history, and the odds against having been born at just that time are staggering. Of course, somebody had to be, but for any random person, the chances are tiny. So maybe the simulators have only modelled this particular time in this particular part of a universe, and all the rest – both time and space – is painted in.
In which case, the purpose of the simulation may be something to do with the run-up to the creation of superintelligence. Perhaps the simulators are working out the best way to create a friend, or a colleague. Maybe there are millions of similar simulations in process, and they are creating an army, or a party. I call this the Economic Twist to the simulation hypothesis, and you can read it in full here.
Elon Musk is on record saying that we are almost certainly living in a simulation, so perhaps Roman should pitch him for funds to help bust us out. We may never find out what is really going on, but perhaps the answer is provided by “Elon’s Razor” – the hypothesis that whatever is the most entertaining explanation is probably the correct one.
Roman concludes that if he disappears one day, then we should conclude that he has managed to bust out. If he reappears, it was just a temporary Facebook ban.