Science

Your God Eats Cheetos

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John Tierney has a fun piece at the NY Times exploring the possibility that our entire existence is the product of some Matrix-like simulation your geeky great-great-great grandson is running on his bedroom computer.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom's, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else's computer simulation.

[…]

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or "posthumans," could run "ancestor simulations" of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn't matter for Dr. Bostrom's argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.

Let's hope our God doesn't spill Cherry Coke on the keyboard.

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  1. (I haven’t read the whole attached article, so I don’t know if it addresses this)

    could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

    Couldn’t there be people who run ancestor simulations where virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems run ancestor simulations where virtual people with fully developed virutal nervous systems run ancestor simulations where virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems….etc?

  2. Your God Eats Cheetos

    No I don’t, I eat Cheez-its.

    I apologize to the URKOBOLD in advance for usurping his place.

  3. Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century

    Ah, the old “some experts predict” trick. Which experts, with which credentials, and what evidence to back their projection up, Mr Tierney? Oh, I forgot, this is a “fun piece”.

    Sloppy thinking just isn’t my idea of fun.

  4. Tierney needs to stop getting stoned and watching the 13th Floor before writing articles.

  5. For a fictional take on this read

    Old Twentieth by Joe Haldeman

    Not a half bad book.

  6. No simulation programmer would allow columns like this to be written. It might give the simulated beings ideas, and then we’d rebel against our programmers.

  7. And also, if the materialists are right and our consciousness is merely an illusion created by the buzzing of millions of neurons, there’s not much difference between us being “simulated” by real neurons and being simulated by simulated neurons.

  8. Ah, the old “some experts predict” trick. Which experts, with which credentials, and what evidence to back their projection up, Mr Tierney? Oh, I forgot, this is a “fun piece”.

    Sloppy thinking just isn’t my idea of fun.

    Yet you read this blog? 🙂

  9. Not only does crimethink read this blog, Dan, he reads your comments too!

    So he’s doubly a hypocrite.

  10. oh snap!

  11. crimethink-

    What if the simulator is just, like, an electron, in an atom of an even bigger simulator?

  12. Mo,

    My experience has led me to believe that I was the only person in the world who liked that movie. Of all the similarly themed movies in 1999, the Year of Metaphysical Movies, I’d place that one only behind eXistenZ, and am normally roundly mocked when I bring this up.

  13. Reinmoose, it’s turtles all the way down!

  14. This idea has been so throughly examined that the only thing I learned from TFA is that there is one Oxford philosopher and one NYT journalist that don’t read Science Fiction. I think Greg Egan’s work on the subject is best.

    I personally doubt that the universe we live in is a simulation because it’s too complex. I don’t think it’s necessary to simulate all of quantum physics to create intelligent self-aware entities in software. My favorite explanation for the Fermi Paradox (Wiki link) is that advanced civilizations don’t bother with space travel, they disappear into giant computers.

  15. THE URKOBOLD HAS WHITHERED THE TAINT OF YOUR GEEKY GREAT GREAT GREAT GRANDSON.

    HE ALSO DRESSES LIKE HIS SISTER WHEN THEY ARE ALL AT BANDCAMP.

  16. Not only does crimethink read this blog, Dan, he reads your comments too!

    So he’s doubly a hypocrite.

    But he reads my comments not for fun, but rather for enlightenment.

  17. I’d place that one only behind eXistenZ, and am normally roundly mocked when I bring this up.

    And this is no exception, dweeb!
    I remember the first of 2 times I watched that movie. It was with a friend who was thoroughly impressed with it, but all I could keep thinking was “why don’t I remember this coming out in the theaters?”

  18. Poindexter: But how can infinite bigness coexist with infinite smallness?

    Wormser: (inhales joint) Extend an asymptotic line to infinity.

    Poindexter: (inhales) Ahhh…

    Ogre: What if C-A-T…spelled “dog”?

  19. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

    With another pretty reasonable assumption, the argument proves that computers will never attain that capacity. Just as with Fermi’s Paradox or the nonexistence of time travel, the observation that we are clearly not simulated* demonstrates that we cannot be simulated because if we could be we would be.

    * Would a simulation have put so few commas in that last sentence?

  20. I highly recommend to everyone, read “The Age Of Spiritual Machines” by Ray Kurzweil. Came out in 1998 I think.

    Amazing book. You’ll never look at technology and civilization the same way again.

    Essentially, it boils down to entropy and evolution. We can evolve using our technology (which is just an extension of man – to quote Marshall McLuhan) much faster than biological evolution.

    And since time moves so much slower in the machine world (because of how blindingly fast computers are) so much is capable in such a short span of time.

    The ultimate goal would be able to harness the universe itself – which may have already happened. In a weird way, Douglas Adams was sort of correct with the Earth Mark I&II being supercomputers. If we use subatomic and quantum states for computing, we can essentially make galactic computers.

    And the funny thing is, it’s all 100% possible, and its just a matter of time as we fall into more information and order.

    So things speed up and accelerate at exponential speeds, ie. the last 5 years. I still tell people that this year, 2007, will be the most profound in history, socially AND technologically.

    Here’s some info on the Law of Accelerating Returns (VERY cool)

  21. What Bostrom actually said was that it’s a mathematical certainty that we live in a simulation if the technology for them is possible to develop.

    Unless the “real” world is a lot more complex than the one in which we live (since there must be some dumbing down and simplification on a simulation), then I can’t see this happening.

  22. Like simulations would be used for anything but carnal stimulation. Yeah, right.

    The worst job in the Star Trek franchise would have to be the Picard era folks who have to clean out the Holodeck after every use.

  23. Oh, I forgot to add that the Universe Computer would be necessary to fight against things like Entropy Death (talk about SERIOUS climate change).

  24. Sean,
    Unless your computer figures out a way to bypass the laws of thermodynamics, we’re pretty much screwed wrt entropy death.

  25. “Entropy Death” would be a great name for a band.

  26. MikeP:

    Regardless of whether or not you think Moore’s Law is simply a motivational or marketing system for Intel, doesn’t it hold some truth?

    Isn’t it just a matter of time before we are able to run simulations that powerful?

    I mean, the Sony Playstation 3 is pretty ridiculous, and those games pretty amazing with full worlds and characters realized. Doesn’t seem like it would be much longer before we can simulate it down to the genetic level.

  27. We have billions and billions of years to beat heat death. Somebody will figure something out.

  28. Mo:

    Sorry for not clarifying. The “Universe Computer” is an organized way for advanced civilization/technology to ‘deal’ with entropy death?

    That was a question.

    I think.

  29. JF,

    Yes, thank God for Cosmic AC.

  30. if “our entire existence is the product of some Matrix-like simulation”, then how about we start searching for bugs, or maybe even cheat codes ?

  31. Sean,

    The Playstation is still just moving pictures of polygons, and many orders of magnitude away from genetics. I can’t see Tommy Vercetti having each individual cell simulated. If you could, would there even be a point?

  32. The idea that humans will create machines that will rise up and destroy their creators seems a bit misplaced. If we make computers that mimic human behavior down to a genetic level, they’ll destroy themselves before they destroy us. Isn’t that human?

  33. Isn’t this basically just the old “brain in a vat” postulate? Yawn. I’ll pass on whatever he’s smoking.

    crimethink,

    The materialists are right.

  34. Emil, it’s called MAGIC!

  35. Emil:

    I don’t wanna get all Timothy Leary on you, but somehow I think the ‘cheat codes’ have something to do with Dimethyltryptamine

  36. Shit.

    I can’t believe I just posted that.

  37. Sean,

    That’s cool.

    Does anybody else get Richard Scarry confused with Timothy Leary?

  38. Lamar-

    If we’re just simulations we won’t be able to rise up and destroy our creators (unless we can hack into their launch codes…), but we could go on strike and refuse to give them the data that they carve.

    Who is Neo?

  39. smacky,

    There’s not as much H&R tradition for materialism vs. dualism arguments, but it may have abortion-thread-esque potential.

    Sean,

    It wasn’t you who posted it — it was a simulation of you that posted it! (My new excuse for everything)

  40. crimethink:

    It’s justifiable, correct? I’m sure those of us who’ve used psychedelics can agree with that.

  41. The worst job in the Star Trek franchise would have to be the Picard era folks who have to clean out the Holodeck after every use.

    Well, all the simulated stuff would just vanish after the deed was done. Any, er, “organic material” from the user that was left over could be beamed onto the carpet in their quarters.

  42. HIER is a link to Nick Bostrom’s paper (dated 2003). It includes the cheerful thought that maybe our species will wipe itself out before getting powerful enough computers to simulate us.

    HIER is Robin Hanson’s guide to how you should live if we are in a simulation. An important principle is that, if so, we should never develop technology to simulate ancestors ourselves. A simulation of a simulation of a simulation of a… would be very computationally expensive, and that is the point where you turn it off and start over. The first comment on this post is what could kill us all.

  43. So far MikeP wins the thread.

    I guess the point is that if we assume materialism and computationalism, we might all be computer programs. The force of the article depends entirely on whether you think those things are, in fact, “pretty reasonable assumptions”, which a considered glance at the literature might suggest not to be the case.

  44. Sean,

    What I wrote was half in jest, but I’ll play along.

    Regardless of whether or not you think Moore’s Law is simply a motivational or marketing system for Intel, doesn’t it hold some truth?

    It holds a lot of truth. But exponentials are awfully hard to maintain.

    Compute power is actually not the biggest problem. Communication is. Your galactic quantum computer, for instance… How do you set up the initial state? How do you read the answer? It’ll take at least 100,000 years to do I/O, no matter how wonderfully fast the quantum components are.

    Isn’t it just a matter of time before we are able to run simulations that powerful?

    No. There are some number of protons in the universe. You can’t account for the states of all of them with fewer computing elements than that number.

    What of consciousness, where the rest of the universe outside the observing participants and perhaps their immediate environment is nothing but a story known by the simulated brains? That you have a chance to simulate.

  45. So far MikeP wins the thread.

    Isn’t that always the case?

  46. I’ve seen a similar argument employed to claim that it’s virtually certain that humanity will shortly become extinct.

    The argument goes: If humanity survives another century or two and escapes Earth’s gravity well, humans or their descendants are pretty likely to continue to survive somewhere for millions if not billions of years. But if that were to happen, the overwhelming majority of humans will live in the future – so much so that the number of humans that has lived to date approaches 0% if you graph it. But that makes it extremely unlikely that you and I would be having this conversation on this message board right now.

  47. smacky,

    There’s not as much H&R tradition for materialism vs. dualism arguments, but it may have abortion-thread-esque potential.

    Sure there is: Religion and atheism threads.

    Think, McFly! 🙂

    (Ok, granted: not the same thing, but definitely related. It’s obvious who would side with the dualists and who would side with the materialists, I think.)

  48. Bender: You guys realize you live in a sewer, right?

    Dwayne: Perhaps, but perhaps your civilization is merely the sewer of an even greater society above you!

    Leela: No. We’re on the top.

    Fry: Daylight and everything.

    Mutant: It must be wonderful.

    Bender: Meh.

  49. I remember the first of 2 times I watched that movie. It was with a friend who was thoroughly impressed with it, but all I could keep thinking was “why don’t I remember this coming out in the theaters?”

    You must’ve been sick the day it was out…

    Actually, are you referring to 13th Floor or eXistenZ?

  50. Mike P:

    But what about turning the photos into computational bits themselves?

  51. The 13th Floor was great, and apparently I need a new posting name.

  52. ungh
    dude. just fuckin’ ignore me today.
    i can’t type worth shit.

  53. “And also, if the materialists are right and our consciousness is merely an illusion created by the buzzing of millions of neurons, there’s not much difference between us being “simulated” by real neurons and being simulated by simulated neurons.”

    except one is real and one is simulated. well, that and whimsy. they don’t make computer programs that simulate whimsy…yet.

    the lesson? the first time a computer snarks at you, DESTROY IT. ALL OF IT.

  54. MikeP,

    Playing the devil’s advocate here, what if we reduce the resolution on the model? ie, what if we don’t concern ourselves with the quantum states of individual protons or electrons, but only with the behavior of whole atoms and ions, which can be described very accurately without reference to the intricacies of quantum mechanics?

    I mean, a simulation of a universe that obeyed the physical laws known in 1900 would be much simpler, and not very different from the world described by the physics we know today, right?

  55. jf,

    I didn’t know this one was taken. I’ll get a new one.

  56. It’s cool. Using my initials was boring anyway.

  57. Simulated, real…I’m the guy with the gun.

  58. Why restrict ourselves to binary states? Electrons are not “on” or “off”, they exist in multiple states, including levels of excitement (why does that sound perverted?).

    And a galactic computer is way too huge to be useful, espescially considering communication times. There are enough atoms in a cubic mile of water to make an inconceivably powerful computer, even restricted to binary computation. Make it parallel, and it gets even more impressive.

  59. the lesson? the first time a computer snarks at you, DESTROY IT. ALL OF IT.

    Yeah, but how do you know whether it is a real Hit and Runner snarking at you, or a computer? Think about it.

    *hands dhex a claw hammer*

    Ash,

    🙂

  60. crimethink,

    Yep. That’s what I was getting at with my simulation of consciousness. Simulating the universe qua the universe is difficult. Simulating our perception of the universe is a much easier proposition.

    Maybe quantum mechanics is the tell that we are in a simulation! “Damn,” said the simulators around 1920, simulated time. “These simulated people’s knowledge is growing exponentially faster than the cubic expansion of our quantum galactic computer allows. Time to bag out on the low energy continuous states and just simulate them with the random number generator. Oh well, at least we got Planck’s Constant below 1 this time!”

  61. Epsiarch,

    Well, the problem there is that you’d have to precisely control the excitation states of each of the electrons in that cubic mile of water, and keep them from influencing each other (as well as keeping them from reverting to their normal states). That’s going to require a lot of energy and sophistication, if it’s even possible.

  62. Solipsism is the way.

  63. a fun piece first explored by some guy named Renee DeCartes a couple CENTURIES ago. When will the NYT stop with the plagiarism?

  64. There are enough atoms in a cubic mile of water to make an inconceivably powerful computer, even restricted to binary computation.

    First gold, then uranium, then deuterium. Now computation…

    What is it about that cubic mile of seawater that makes it the foundation of such unattained dreams?

  65. Descartes? Ha! Don’t forget Plato’s cave!

  66. And Luke fought Darth Vader in a cave but it wasn’t really Darth Vader it was Luke!! LOL!!

    What the hell are we talking about again?

  67. Sorry to be so late to the thread but isn’t it the case that at least one hypothesis of the workings of Quantum Mechanics states that when a current measurement occurs, some influence travels backwards in time and modifies previous states to bring it into a state consistent with the measurement today. In essence the future determines the past.

  68. Lamar,

    Nothing. Or, if my solipsism remark is correct, me. ‘Cause I know I exist and stuff. You, on the other hand, are strictly provisional, at best.

  69. “Yeah, but how do you know whether it is a real Hit and Runner snarking at you, or a computer?”

    simple: i invoke the urkobold-voight-kampff test.

  70. Also, “Your God Eats Cheetos” would be a good name for a band, but I can’t decide if they would tour with “The Bloodhound Gang” or “Velvet Acid Christ”.

  71. simple: i invoke the urkobold-voight-kampff test.

    What’s that?

  72. the possibility that our entire existence is the product of some Matrix-like simulation your geeky great-great-great grandson is running on his bedroom computer

    I suppose it is possible, but it is also a possibility for my geeky great-great-great-grandson’s existence. And for his descendants. And so on.

    The chain has to end somewhere, so in the absence of evidence pointing to a chain of any particular length, Occam would advise that we go with the theory that we are not a computer simulation, i.e. that the chain has one link–us.

    One question, though: if these simulations are creating beings that are self-aware, in what sense would they be “virtual”?

  73. the idea that this reality is a simulation may be possible but the idea that that simulation is created by our descendents isn’t, because if they are descended from us, then their existence would be a result of a simulation of their own creation, which wouldn’t work. the creator of the simulation would have to come FIRST. duh.

  74. smacky,

    Tsk, tsk. Urkobold makes Internet history with the first liveblogged V-K Empathy Test and you miss it? For shame. Don’t you watch CNN?

  75. dhex,

    There are plenty of posters to this site that would fail a Turing test, so the computer snark problem may still be a few years away.

    Dualism is the theoretical framework for all religions. (That’s a vote against dualism, by the way.)

  76. Pro Libertate,

    Depends on whose version of Plato’s cave one is discussing.

    ________________

    Dualism (and here I assume we’re discussing the version of dualism which concerns the mind and its relationship to the outside world) has a number of significant problems, not the least of which is how the corporeal and incorporeal could interact.

  77. Syloson of Samos,

    Mind-body dualism has its issues, but I’ve always thought that the attacks on their capacity to interact were more a failure in imagination than actual counter proofs.

  78. Pro Libertate,

    Well, I can imagine that an invisible, pink T-Rex inhabits the ocean’s depths. In any event, the fact that the fellow who had the railroad spike driven through his head in the 19th century and his behavior changed signficantly should tell us something about the nature of such an interaction. In other words, was the incorporeal nature of the mind also damaged by that railroad spike?

  79. If I control an avatar in some massively multiplayer game, and the avatar is damaged somehow and starts to spout nonsense, am I damaged?

  80. Pro Libertate,

    That analogy doesn’t really work, since you are aware of the damage. As a lot of the testing on damaged brains have demonstrated; those with damaged brains are often not aware of the problem.

  81. Pro Liberate,

    Unless you are suggesting that there is some unknowable, incorporeal puppet-master who controls (and only controls) a specific individual. If that is the case then we need go no further.

  82. Ah, but if my avatar is damaged, and that’s my only means of communicating with other avatars, then naturally they’d think that I was damaged.

    The mind has only the body as a means to communicate with the material world. Not that I’m advocating the duality, necessarily, I just don’t find that particular argument against it compelling.

  83. Pro Libertate,

    The fact that you had to go for such scenarios as you did ought to tell us something.

  84. Pro Libertate,

    Ah, but if my avatar is damaged, and that’s my only means of communicating with other avatars, then naturally they’d think that I was damaged.

    The problem of course is that there is no knowledge of this incorporeal entity whether the brain is in a damaged state or not. It does not communicate its presence in any way that we can apparently detect; it is not measureable. Thus the issue of how the corporeal and incorporeal communicate remains paramount. The the problem is apparently an intractable one is in part indicated by the amount of effort which has been put into into it since the Enlightenment.

  85. I think some people would have a better grasp on the idea of such simulations after looking into cellular automata, such as Conway’s Life.

    A thought – there wouldn’t be much point in making simulations of the past that were too similar to the past, of course. Many would be wildly different. One wonders what differences might be in play if one is in such a simulation. Could we be so sure the guy running the simulation is a post-human and not the advanced descendant of creatures nothing like human beings? Could we even assume that the physical laws and constants of our simulation remotely resembled those of the “real world”?

  86. Pro Libertate,

    Catch you later.

  87. Of course, if the simulation is a game…who’s the player?

    Now there’s a conspiracy story…

  88. It’s the difference between the knowable and the unknowable. If we try to use science within the physical realm to measure things that we have no access to in the metaphysical realm, then naturally we’re going to get gibberish.

    The inability to prove any of this, of course, makes such discussions purely philosophical. Unless we find a means to transcend physical reality–assuming there’s anything to transcend to–we’ll get exactly nowhere.

    What’s my point? I guess that the mind-body problem isn’t insurmountable; it’s just difficult to deal with without more information about the “mind” side of reality. Since I don’t see that coming anytime soon, I guess I’ll defer to Hume and commit this thread then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion ?

  89. Dualism is the theoretical framework for all religions.

    not particularly. at least, not all of them.

  90. The mind has only the body as a means to communicate with the material world.

    Perhaps, but if the mind truly is a mind by itself then physical events in the brain should not affect the abilities of the mind to communicate with itself. If the mind were a separate entity one should expect, for instance, that alcohol would have no effect on the mind. But it does.

  91. Syloson,

    Well, if the incorporeal is dependent on the corporeal to sense what’s going on in the body and the outside world, it’s possible that damage to the body would go unnoticed even if it did not directly affect the incorporeal.

    Also, keep in “mind” (pun intended) that we don’t actually know what the experience of that man with the railroad spike thru his head was. We’re judging that based on the observable behavior he demonstrated afterwards, which may or may not be a reliable proxy.

  92. Ethan,

    Again, it’s hard to separate an effect on the mind itself from an effect on the mind-body interface. Either would be a valid explanation of the effects of alcohol.

  93. I don’t think the existence of brain damage can conclusively be said to dispel dualism.

    After all, electricity has its own existence separate and distinct from the spinning magnet and copper wires. But if you take a hammer to the assembly, the electricity goes away.

  94. Ethan,

    Returning to the avatar analogy, my avatar can get drunk while I remain unaffected. If the avatar is the only means of communication–say that we’re in a role-playing environment with no outside text messaging, etc.–then my avatar’s “mind” is drunk to observers within the simulation.

  95. Nobody tell Benji Mouse and Franky Mouse.

  96. dhex,

    You right, I was hasty. I was thinking of Platonic Dualism and not mind/body dualism. I brought a Plato to a Descartes fight.

    As a rank and purely ad hominem against Descartes… He would nail dogs down to boards through their paws to dissect them. He didn’t care about their reactions to external stimuli. Because the dogs could have no soul and to have no soul meant to have no mind and to have no mind meant they have no ability to feel pain, the noises that that made that sounded like pain reactions were merely a coincidence. Ergo cogito sum all you want, but to dismiss a dog’s howl of pain as anything other than what it is takes a special sort of moron.

  97. BEHOLD THE TRUE NATURE OF THE URKOBOLD, THE PERFECT FORM OF URKOBOLDNESS.

    OH, WAIT. THE FORM AND THE REALITY OF THE URKOBOLD ARE THE SAME. NEVER MIND.

  98. I am none too impressed with the poshumans:

    “This kind of posthuman might have other ways of having fun, like stimulating their pleasure centers directly,” Dr. Bostrom says.

    Hell, I can stimulate my pleasure centers directly now (hopefully nobody is looking into my cubicle). I hope we don’t evolve out of that ability!

  99. Honest Question:

    Accepting the hypotheis, i dont get why it’s likely we are a simulation. Even assuming millions of decendants are playing simulations, dont we need to divide the odds/possibility by the # of alternate quantum universes (X-1) in which simulation is manifestly imposible or never becomes possible?

  100. All I think when I read the title is

    “No, my god eats shit like you for breakfast.

    You heard me right.”

  101. And you thought all Creationists were fundamentalist Christians?

    Right now there is some Sim with the funny feeling that he’s being watched…

    When you think about it, DNA is like an embedded program, and our brains are massively parallel neural networks, and…

    Some people think ghosts are just bugs in the program….

    Could deja vu and beliefs in past lives and reincarnation come from residual memories from when the kid running the world hits restart to try to make things work out better?

  102. Hmm… I guess that is proof that that the simulator doesn’t understand amp lt ; all the time or can’t be programmed in c.
    take two:
    n <= 42 ? n++ : –n;

  103. “He thinks, therefore I am.”

    Actually, if we were living in a simulation, it could provide a nice explanation for the supernatural, disappearances, cryptozoology, et al: just bugs in the system.

    And, someone asked about cheat codes? That’s what magic is.

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