The Simulation Argument

Posted on 9 Aug 2007 at 21:55

The Simulation Argument is not a new concept; there are echoes of it as far back as Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Even fiction authors from the last century dreamed of a world that could likely be controlled by computers, as well as humans one day leaving their "meat" prisons behind. In fact many of the main premises of the argument are based on the works of notable science fiction authors, like Robert Bradbury, Ray Kurtzweil, and William Gibson. These authors predicted a world in which humans developed sufficient technology to simulate a world that looked and felt real to everyday humans.

At first glance Mr. Bostrom's paper appears to be an answer to the Fermi-Hart Paradox. Through the course of the article he argues that at least one of the following is true:

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.
  2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).
  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

He derives these premises through the use of probability theory, and bases them on assumptions about how humans have built up a "technological infrastructure".

The technology that is needed to create a simulated environment is pretty straight forward. Most of us have the basic knowledge of what it takes having seen the Matrix. The most basic components include: a body, a brain-machine interface, and a machine on which to run the simulations. We have the first as a given, and so the only thing preventing us from developing a simulation at present is the technology. However, the massive amount of computing power that is necessary to truly run a convincing to realistic simulation, one that could convince more than 6 billion people, is far greater than anything even remotely imaginable at our stage of evolution.

Already we have effectively increased computing power more than tenfold since the 1950's and the inception of the internet, yet we still are lacking the necessary power to run effective simulated environments. That is not to say, however, that we are not currently developing the means to do so. If we believe Moore's Law holds true, then we should, eventually, and if our civilization survives long enough, have sufficient computing power to run ancestor simulations. This brings us to another question, which Bostrom himself poses, directly related to his last assumption of us living in a simulated reality. Why would a society advanced enough to essentially control their environment want to run an ancestor simulation?

Now it would seem, given the previous arguments, that we are most definitely living inside of a computer simulation. But why would our "creator" want to run a simulation and why are we here? There may be countless reason though to run a simulation of our ancestors. Many people express a desire to go back to the past to see a particular era of history that holds their attention. Other would seize the opportunity to study how humans or other creatures develop over time as a way to cure societal ills of the current day. Still some would seek to do so for purely selfish reason like exploitation. Yet, this is a question that has been asked more time and in more ways than can likely be counted.

All humans as naturally inquisitive as we are, want to know where we came from and where we are headed. In fact, The Allegory of the Cave was a direct challenge to the current days perception of reality and how we gain knowledge of that reality. To my mind, The Simulation Argument appears to be an updated answer to the Fermi Paradox and a neat little update on creationism. By saying that, some Christians may go high and to the right, but it truly makes sense. As stated on the Simulism Wiki, "...if we are indeed living in a simulation, then it would seem that someone must have created it." In this sense, Simulism would be in line with most major religions." However, through Dr. Bostrom's own admission, the Simulation Argument only has > 50% probability of even being true -- he actually gives it a > 20% possibilty of being real or even ever occurring. This is mainly because there is little or no factual evidence to substantiate the hypothesis at this time. This doesn't prevent us from accepting the argument as true though.

In conclusion, the Simulation Arguement, while a fascinating, is merely a thought-provoking, revised way of looking at the world around us. Only time will tell what can come from this line of thinking. Will it send us further along the path of developing A.I. and better, faster microprocessors to run our own simulation? Will we tempted to become Descartes "Evil Genius"? Will we destroy ourselves and never know the answer? Or will we even care?