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How Would Living in a Computer Simulation Work?

By March 12, 2017 No Comments

You may have heard about a series of video games known as The Sims – these are some of the best-selling video games of all time. If you count just the main titles, more than 34 million copies have been sold. Counting all the Sims software such as expansions, the total revenue from the franchise is more than 2.5 billion dollars.

If you’ve never seen The Sims in action, you play what is essentially the role of a personal god. It’s like a digital dollhouse, but the “dolls” have little lives and personalities of their own. You control almost every aspect of their virtual life and reality, and the entertainment comes from seeing them cope with the things you throw their way.



Despite the name, The Sims is, of course, not a perfect simulation of real human life. It’s a crude but entertaining toy that has proven very popular.

Car Racing Simulator

Virtually Ideal Simulation

Have you ever thought what it would be like to live as a Sim? Not as we know them, but as we are – as fully-realized human beings. You’d still be just as smart and be alive in the ways that matter, it’s just that the world you inhabit would be one created artificially. It’s not such a mad idea. After all, we play in virtual worlds all the time. Whether it’s role playing board-games or cutting-edge VR video games, millions of people already love escaping to worlds of our own making.

Here we aren’t talking about temporary escape though, we’re talking about permanently moving to a simulated world. Radical, right? Why would anyone do that? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about the different ways it could actually be achieved.

The DIY Method

In principle, we’ve already got the means to live in a rudimentary simulation. If you were to hook your body up to a feeding and waste removal system you could spend long periods of time in VR. One day perhaps we’ll have direct brain interfaces that will bypass your eyes and ears completely. Cutting off the body itself, the same way the brain does when we dream, will be a key development for total and convincing immersion.

You might recognize this idea from the film The Matrix where humans were grown in pods and connected to a huge computer simulation. Neither of these methods can give you permanent immersion in the virtual world, simply because your real body was not made to survive in complete immobility. So why bother with a body at all?

The Brain in a Jar Method

The next step is doing away with the whole body; taking your brain itself and hooking it up to a computer simulation system. The brain itself is much easier to maintain (in theory) than a whole body. You, of course, wouldn’t feel like a brain in a jar. Presumably you’d have the body of your choice with all the simulated sensation that you want. Who knows how long a bodiless brain can live, though. Currently, human beings don’t seem to last for more than 120 years. Jeanne Calment was the oldest verified human; she died aged 122. How long a brain could be kept alive is almost a complete guess, but there’s good reason to think that it may be for considerably longer than this, barring unknown biological limits.

Eventually, however, the brain will die. Just as with all biological systems it will be susceptible to things like cancer, deterioration, and other vulnerabilities. Some of these, we don’t know about yet. For example, is there a practical limit to how much memory a human brain can store? Dementia is pretty common in humans in their later years and who knows if we’ll ever figure out why the brain seems to go into cognitive decline over time. So why even hang on to the roughly two pounds of pink jelly that houses your mind? Why not go for a cybernetic brain?

The Cyberbrain Method

The next level of commitment to living in a simulation is augmenting and replacing parts of the brain with artificial components. There are a variety of potential future technologies that could be used to “cyberize” a human brain.

For example, nanorobots could replace neurons and other brain elements at the lowest level, eventually turning the entire neural network into an artificial version of itself. Alternatively, it could be that each part of the brain (such as the cerebellum or frontal lobes) could be replaced bit by bit. That is, what the brain does would be replaced by an equivalent component such as a brain chip that exactly mimics those things. In principle, you wouldn’t need any biological parts at all if you’d copied the information into the hardware itself.

The problem with this method is that since the brain is locally stored in the actual hardware, it may still be vulnerable to destruction, malfunction, and damage. So maybe even that needs to be left behind.

The Pure Software Method

You’ve probably heard of “the cloud”, which is a computing term for software that does not run on your local computer or phone, but runs on the processors of massive computer data centers. The interesting thing is that where the processing of the data is located depends on where power is available. Software and data is not bound to any one computer. Think of it more like water or electricity. It’s on tap when you need it, in the amounts you need it.

Here you would exist as a pattern of computer code or whatever the future equivalent will be. Your existence would be replicated and processed across various systems and, barring some sort of truly cataclysmic event, you’d be effectively immortal and indestructible; living in a simulated computer world.

But Why?

The methods above takes care of the hypothetical “how”, but what about the “why”? Why would anyone want to do something like this? Well, there are actually many reasons why people would want to put themselves into a computer simulation. Some of those reasons are, of course, deeply personal, but many are simply pragmatic. I’ll go over the most important ones here.

Living Forever – Immortality

Fearing death and trying to avoid it is a perfectly natural human reaction. The fear of death drives many positive and negative aspects of human existence, from art to the pursuit of life goals. It’s one of the reasons that most cultures have invented the idea of an afterlife. The idea that our existence continues even after our physical bodies have died is one that’s almost universal across history.

Which is why it makes sense that the prospect of an afterlife you can be 100% sure of will attract more than its fair share of interest. Imagine if you could spend hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years enjoying all the pleasures and wonders you could envision. It also means not having to lose the ones that you love the most, although I’m sure spending a few centuries apart every now and then will only be good for your relationship.

Will we really live forever? Well, obviously since the computer system that the simulation runs on is still a physical machine in the real universe, that means at some point it will be destroyed. For example, at some point in the extremely distant future the Sun will expand and swallow the Earth as a precursor to its eventual death.

Even if, by then, we have moved all over the universe, all of existence will eventually end with the heat death of the universe. The distances between stars don’t mean that much if you don’t care about travel times and only need something like nuclear or solar power to keep everything going.

Time Compression

Speaking of living forever, just because the universe itself has a limit on time, that doesn’t mean we have to pay attention to it. Living in a simulation may be one of the ways we can live for longer than the universe would otherwise allow us to live.
How is this possible? Through time compression, of course. All this means is that the simulation runs at a faster speed than the host universe. So, for example, for every 6 seconds of time in the real world, 60 seconds may pass in the simulation. In our hypothetical situation here, it means that for every century that passes on the real earth, a millennium would pass in the sim. Of course, we don’t know just how much time could be compressed in this way, but it may extend humanity’s time as living, conscious creatures far beyond what the universe would have given us.

So, in short, living in a simulation may give us more time than we would otherwise have. With that much time on our virtual hands we may even be in a position to solve some of the most fundamental and deep mysteries of the universe. Or perhaps just enjoy millennia of nonstop virtual parties. I mean, it’s up to you.



To Expand Our Minds

There’s a lot of buzz around the idea of AI, but if we were beings in a simulation, it stands to reason that we would no longer be limited by the level of intelligence we got at birth. Whether you are an augmented brain in a jar or a completely uploaded and simulated mind, being in a simulation may allow you to expand your mind as much as you need. We may also be able to directly communicate from one brain to the next. The possibilities of how our minds could change and improve, freed from the constraints of technology, are virtually endless.

Copying Ourselves

Each one of us is a unique creature with our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. However, if you were to digitally upload yourself there would be nothing to stop mental clones from being created. In fact, it’s likely that the digital version of you is in fact a copy, with the original either still living on as flesh or destroyed in the uploading process.

Exploring the Universe

I alluded to this point earlier, but if we could upload a number of individuals into a computer and then load that into a spacecraft, they could go out and explore the universe. Unbound from time, they could comfortably traverse the space between the stars, barring any accidents.

Speaking of which – instead of bothering to terraform planets to support human life, if we live as simulated digital people we can exist on any planet that has the right minerals and access to solar or geothermal energy. In fact, this may be one of the reasons that it’s hard to detect advanced civilizations in the universe. It’s not that they are rare, necessarily, but that they transcend into a simulated form and more or less stay under the radar.

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Technological Requirements

So what would you need to create such a simulation? Certainly not any sort of computer technology that exists today. Despite the massive rate at which computing power has increased over the years, we’re nowhere near having enough power to scan, store, and simulate even one human brain, much less a significant population of people.

Don’t forget that you don’t just have to simulate the minds of the people, but also the world which they sense and “inhabit”.
The amount of computing power this would theoretically need is mind-numbing. Our current computer technology, which is based on silicon semiconductors, is also heading for a brick wall in terms of how powerful it can be. This suggests that if it will at all be possible to create such simulations, they will require an exotic computer technology which doesn’t yet exist.

Weird and Wonderful Computers

The first computers weren’t silicon semiconductor machines like your laptop or tablet. In fact, the first computers were not even digital. For example, Charles Babbage’s analytical engine was a completely mechanical computer. Although it was never completely finished, modern recreations of it do work. Early computers like ENIAC and MULTIVAC used vacuum tubes. Then we invented transistors, which of course lead to integrated circuits. There are many limitations to the sorts of problems that can be solved with a digital silicon computer.

So if not silicon, then what? Well, carbon nanotubes may be the immediate solution to the limitations of current computer technology. We’re getting to the point where we can’t make our silicon circuits any smaller or faster, but carbon can take over where silicon fails. In 2015, IBM made a major breakthrough in the use of carbon nanotubes as a possible replacement for silicon.

If they are eventually successful in using this technology to make a new generation of computer electronics, we can expect machines that are smaller, MUCH faster, and superior in just about every other way. Will that be fast enough to create the sort of simulations we’re talking about? Ultimately, probably not. But technology such as carbon nanotube processors will likely be a part of the overall solution.

There are other ways to compute as well. There’s the design of the brain itself, which is not a digital computer as far as we can tell, but does some incredibly complex computations using principles that we’ll hopefully figure out completely in the end. There’s also the possibility of computing with light, making a so-called “photonic” computer that uses photons instead of electrons.

Going even further out there, we have quantum computing. This is a form of computing that a lot of people are pinning their hopes on; it could provide the sort of power that we need for simulating a universe and the people in it. We may also make use of even weirder devices, some even biological, but anything further would be pure speculation.

Computational Power for Simulation

It helps that you don’t actually have to actively simulate everything in your world all the time. Computation time can be saved in all sorts of way. For example, you only need to simulate things that are actually being observed in order to maintain the illusion of the simulation.

Oddly enough, that may in fact be sort of how our actual universe works – oddly efficient about how it maintains reality. The phenomenon of quantum de-coherence is a good example – a photon takes every possible path, but when it’s observed it de-coheres and retroactively only takes the “right” path.

Of course, if you don’t have enough computing power yet, you can also run your simulation at slower than real-time. It would be the opposite of the time compression I mentioned earlier. So having enough computational power to render everything, and do it in real time, is not a minimum requirement to make simulated people and worlds.

What if it Already Happened?

So if all of this is possible, and for good reasons, then what’s to say this hasn’t already happened? What if you and I are simulated people living in a simulated world? What if I told you that there may be a good reason to think that our universe is actually a simulation running on another civilization’s computer technology?

It may sound like the sort of wacky thing college students discuss in the small hours of the night. However, there is a serious logical and philosophical argument to be made for the truth of the idea. It was most famously formulated by the philosopher Nick Bostrom. In 2003, he published a paper titled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”.

In it he presents an argument that, if you accept its premises, is pretty compelling. You’re free to go read the paper in its entirety and I highly recommend you do so, but I can summarize the basic idea here. What Bostrom is basically saying is the following:

If you accept that it is in principle possible to create a simulation of a universe such as the one that we live in AND you accept that creating such simulations is something that a civilization wants to do, then chances are we’re living in such a simulation.

How come? Well, it’s statistics for the most part. It’s about deciding, given the premises, which scenario is more likely. If a civilization in the “real” universe, or universe “zero”, creates simulations, then some of those simulations will end up creating their own simulations, and so on.

Simulated universes will outnumber the real universe by an almost infinite number, so any conscious being is almost certain to be in one of the simulations rather than in universe zero. One of the main reasons we would want to create simulations would be to figure out how our own universe was formed or how life emerged. It’s conceivable that if you recreate the right conditions in your simulated world, life will emerge and it will be as “real” as anything.

Reality Bites

The thing is, we can probably never prove that our universe is a simulation, unless the simulators tell us or we devise a scientific way to detect it. For example, a recent study tried to determine if the universe was holographic in nature.

They haven’t found any evidence that it is, but that sort of experimental science may be able to detect clues to a simulated universe. Either way, it’s an amazing concept to consider, and perhaps one day soon we will create our first simulation – one that’s just as real as our own universe.