Are we in a simulation?

Are we in a simulation?

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom proposed a trilemma that he called "the simulation argument". Despite the name, Bostrom's "simulation argument" does not directly argue that we live in a simulation; instead, Bostrom's trilemma argues that one of three unlikely-seeming propositions must be true.

Are we living in a computer simulation?

High-profile physicists and philosophers gathered to debate whether we are real or virtual—and what it means either way.

If you, me and every person and thing in the cosmos were actually characters in some giant computer game, we would not necessarily know it. The idea that the universe is a simulation sounds more like the plot of “The Matrix,” but it is also a legitimate scientific hypothesis. Researchers pondered the controversial notion Tuesday at the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate here at the American Museum of Natural History.

Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said. He noted the gap between human and chimpanzee intelligence, despite the fact that we share more than 98 percent of our DNA. Somewhere out there could be a being whose intelligence is that much greater than our own. “We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said. “If that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.”

A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors.  They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.

And there are other reasons to think we might be virtual. For instance, the more we learn about the universe, the more it appears to be based on mathematical laws. Perhaps that is not a given, but a function of the nature of the universe we are living in. “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical,” said Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “That just reflects the computer code in which it was written.”

Furthermore, ideas from information theory keep showing up in physics. “In my research I found this very strange thing,” said James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland. “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 realization that I could no longer say people like Max are crazy.”

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