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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

A programmer wonders about living inside someone else's program

I've been thinking a lot lately again about Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument—the one that reasons that we're living inside a computer simulation. If you want a proper description of the argument, follow the link. However, if you're happy to accept my abbreviated version, the idea is that in the whole history of the human race there will be a specific number of conscious individuals. If humanity reaches the technological point of being able to simulate other consciousnesses, the total number of consciousnesses will soar, but the vast majority of them will be simulated. As being born human is equivalent to randomly picking one of those consciousnesses to be you, the odds are hugely in favour of you being a simulation.

I wrote about this a few years ago here.

Of course a huge IF here is the assumption that it is possible to simulate consciousness, or as they say, consciousness is substrate-independent. For myself, I would argue that this is not a given, seeing as we don't yet even understand how consciousness forms in our own brains. However, I suspect it is probably correct.

The first question that occurs to me is, why would you run such a simulation? Perhaps historians are using them to answer counterfactual histories. More worryingly, we might just be background details inside a video game.

Another question that arises is how we should behave once we start believing we're inside a simulation. Some people suggest we should endeavour to lead interesting lives so that the meta-beings running the simulation keep us going. Not sure of that personally: looking around, there are so many uninteresting lives, my own probably included, that if dullness was a recipe for termination, there'd be people disappearing right, left and centre.

And yet another question is when will the meta-beings decide to stop the whole simulation. I would think that a highly significant moment in a simulation's run is when the simulants (i.e. us) come upon the Simulation Argument, and another even more significant point is when they prove that the argument is correct. Maybe we can never prove this, but if enough people concluded it was true, it might be effectively the same thing. Our behaviour would now be influenced by the belief, to the point that the real purpose of the simulation (whatever that might be) can no longer be achieved, leading to the simulation being ended. If that's right, the sensible thing would be to forget all about the Simulation Argument. On the other hand, the meta-beings could easily (some big assumptions on my part here about their coding ability) have programmed us to be incapable of even conceiving the concept of being inside a simulation, so perhaps this self-realisation is something they look for.

At this point it seems that trying to second guess the meta-beings' motive is as fruitful as trying to see into the mind of God. They all move in mysterious ways.

I came across this argument maybe a decade ago and it's stuck with me ever since. Then recently Elon Musk stated that he thought it overwhelmingly likely that we are indeed living inside a simulation.

That's easy for him to believe. I can visualise a meta-being in the real world, or Base Reality, maybe in a games store picking up a box marked Elon Musk.

- "What's this one like?"

- "Oh, you get to play a billionaire tech genius who builds spaceships."

- "Cool! I'll take it."

Noticeably they do not buy the game called Charles Anderson, in which you play a software engineer who lives a reasonably good life, but to whom nothing particularly exciting ever happens (for which incidentally he is very grateful), and who certainly doesn't build spaceships (although I did have the Airfix Apollo 11).

This leads ti the nub of my problem with believing I'm a simulation: why would anyone bother putting in so much incidental detail? Currently I am recovering from a mild cold and there is also an irritating paper cut on my left thumb. Seriously? Someone programmed that in? What made them think that the simulation needed to include trivia like paper cuts and sore throats?

Here's some more unnecessary detail. If you are touched simultaneously on a toe and the tip of your nose, you perceive the touches as happening at the same moment. However, the distance the nerve signal from the nose has to travel to your brain is much, much shorter that the one from your toe. The conclusion of neuroscientist David Eagleman and others is that the brain, on receiving the message from your nose, holds onto that fact for a fraction of a second in case any other signals come in from further away on the body. If they do, that part of the brain then tells our consciousness that the two signals arrived together. In effect, our consciousness is living up to half a second in the past. There are other experiments which force you to come to the same conclusion. While extremely interesting in what it says about our minds, you have to ask why the meta-beings would need to build something like that into their simulation. Why not have just made it so that nerve signals travel so fast that they arrive effectively simultaneously?

As a programmer myself, I know that we nearly always take the easy route. If the meta-beings wrote a simulation with a complication like that in it, I can only guess that they did it because that's what happens in their own reality. In other words, humans in the simulation are likely very similar to the ones outside it.

I concluded before that the most sensible thing for me to do is to accept the possibility that I am just a simulation, but continue to live my life as if I'm not. Today, as I get my head round the concept of President Trump, while still not having got over the Brexit vote, I'm starting to wonder if a bit of prayer to our meta-overlords might not be worth a try.

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