What if were living in a computer simulation?

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Virtual reality technology is making great advances, but it has also helped popularise a theory long debated by philosophers and now gaining supporters in Silicon Valley that the outside world is itself a simulation

Have you ever wondered if life is not exactly what its cracked up to be? OK, lets take that thought a little further. Have you ever suffered from an identity crisis? Yes? One in which you suspected that youre not a real person, but instead an extremely sophisticated computer simulation of a real person produced by an immensely more developed civilisation than that which we take to be our own?

Its just possible that I lost you on that last point, but stay with me, because the reality we take for granted is coming under increasing technological and theoretical threat.

Earlier this month in an office block in Euston, I put on a virtual reality (VR) headset and began playing a prototype of a game developed by a company called Dream Reality Interactive. The company was set up by David Ranyard, the former head of Sonys VR division.

Ranyard has a PhD in artificial intelligence which he says has been useless for 19 years. But he believes theres going to be a convergence in VR and artificial intelligence (AI) soon, and his company aims to be there when that happens.

Whats changing is accessibility. Ten years ago VR was the preserve of wealthy early adopters. Now you can pick up a reasonable VR set for 600. Ranyard thinks the price will continue to fall, as will the size of the headset, until it becomes more like wearing a pair of glasses.

But right now Im wearing a large case over my eyes, and headphones. I feel instantly removed from my environment. In front of me I can see a ball, which I can move by looking at a cursor. The ball travels along a high narrow pathway in a vertiginous 3D computer simulation, and I must guide it into various targets to get to the next stages, where a series of ever more fantastic backdrops unfold.

In terms of skill, it is quite simple, but the striking aspect of the game is the physical sensation of playing it. I feel and therefore believe that I am physically moving back and forth, as though I am on a chair on wheels. External reality has fallen away and I am in a strange and compelling world, anxious not to fall off the terrifying precipices. My brain sends signals to my body that create the illusion that its shooting around like a pinball, when in fact I am stationary.

So from one perspective its just another video game with added thrills. But theres also something else going on here, a radical change of narrative perspective. Computer games are a form of story, and human beings are devoted storytellers.

As Yuval Noah Harari argues in his book Sapiens, the ability to create binding fictions is what enabled us to become the most dominant species on the planet. And what are stories if not representations, or simulations, of reality?

I do talks and I have this image of Harold Lloyd [the silent movie star] whos about to fall off this clock, says Ranyard. And the point I make is that in order to care about it, you have to care about him. So part of the film is setting you up to like him. In VR you dont need to do that set-up because its you. There are a whole range of emotions we havent used because weve always had to do it through empathy.

Elon
Elon Musk, the man behind the electric car company Tesla, and SpaceX, has said its a billions to one chance that were not living in a simulation. Photograph: AP

VR is different because its not like a film, in which you watch other people in an invented reality. You are instead the star of what feels like an alternative reality.

Leaving aside the moral implications of this change and whether it heralds greater self-absorption and social detachment what is notable, for me, is the aftereffect. It is something of a relief, but also disorienting, to remove the headset and return to the real world. I experience a kind of ontological dissonance, as it takes a few minutes before the familiar returns to its reliable concrete self.

And in that discomfort, that bodily sense of uncertainty, there lies a far more profound and unsettling question. What if the reality Ive returned to isnt real but just another, more finely realised simulation? What if the thing our senses so easily fooled by the headset tell us is real life are in fact an elaborate creation, every bit as illusory as that Id experienced on the precarious pathway built out of pixels?

Its a hoary metaphysical debate that has concerned thinkers as diverse as Descartes, Zhuang Zhou and even, arguably, the godfather of philosophy, Plato. It has also been the subject of countless science-fiction stories, including, most influentially, The Matrixfilm series. But how can we be sure that reality is real?

In The Matrix, made in 1999 by the Wachowski sisters, humans have been enslaved, paralysed and used as an energy source by advanced machines. But instead of realising their plight, humans are locked in a false reality, a giant simulation created by their machine masters to subdue them.

In essence The Matrix was a reworking of the philosopher Hilary Putnams brain in a vat scenario, in which a disembodied brain is subject to computer stimulation and operates in a false reality. And in turn Putnams vision was an update of the 17th-century French philosopher Ren Descartess first meditation, in which he posited the idea that an evil demon had fabricated the external world.

For all its philosophical heritage, The Matrix was most of all perfect cinematic fodder for alienated teenagers. But four years after it was released, the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote a paper provocatively titled Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?. The paper argued that one of three propositions is true:

a) The human race is likely to become extinct before reaching a post-human stage.

b) Any post-human civilisation is unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history (or variations thereof).

c) We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Known as the simulation argument, it is a wonderful piece of logical projection. There have, naturally, been several critiques of Bostroms hypothesis, some on complex logical grounds, and some arguing that creating convincing ancestor simulations will remain impossible.

The hypothesis has attracted the interest and attention of many futurologists and Silicon Valley types. The New Yorker reported last year that two unnamed tech billionaires have gone so far as to employ scientists to work out how to break us out of the simulation.

The appeal of the hypothesis, and its shocking third option (which I explain in more detail below), is partly that its a challenge to the basic foundations of our perceptions, but also, paradoxically, that it plugs into some longstanding human preoccupations. Perhaps the oldest human story is that the world and all we see and know is the product of a creator. So theres a kind of religious element to the notion of a giant simulation, a sense that there is a higher, purer reality, if we could only but grasp it.

(Nicolas Hnin, one of the western hostages held by Islamic State in Syria, reported on his release that one of the jihadis was obsessed with The Matrix, and believed that he had escaped the matrix by going to Syria.)

Back in the real world, or rather back in the possible simulation I take to be the real world, technology advances apace. We are seeing rapid progress in computer science, including the development of quantum computers, whose vastly increased potential capacity would be vital for a large-scale simulation.

At the same time there is continued progress in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, biotechnology and other areas that would help create more convincing simulations. And we can see that with each new breakthrough in technology, we tend to make better, more convincing representations of the world, both now and in the past.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/22/what-if-were-living-in-a-computer-simulation-the-matrix-elon-musk

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