How to test if we’re living in a computer simulation

December 10, 2022


Melvin M. Vopson, University of Portsmouth

Physicists have long struggled to explain why the universe started out with conditions suitable for life to evolve. Why do the physical laws and constants take the very specific values that allow stars, planets and ultimately life to develop? The expansive force of the universe, dark energy, for example, is much weaker than theory suggests it should be – allowing matter to clump together rather than being ripped apart.

A common answer is that we live in an infinite multiverse of universes, so we shouldn’t be surprised that at least one universe has turned out as ours. But another is that our universe is a computer simulation, with someone (perhaps an advanced alien species) fine-tuning the conditions.

The latter option is supported by a branch of science called information physics, which suggests that space-time and matter are not fundamental phenomena. Instead, the physical reality is fundamentally made up of bits of information, from which our experience of space-time emerges. By comparison, temperature “emerges” from the collective movement of atoms. No single atom fundamentally has temperature.

This leads to the extraordinary possibility that our entire universe might in fact be a computer simulation. The idea is not that new. In 1989, the legendary physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, suggested that the universe is fundamentally mathematical and it can be seen as emerging from information. He coined the famous aphorism “it from bit”.

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom from Oxford University in the UK formulated his simulation hypothesis. This argues that it is actually highly probable that we live in a simulation. That’s because an advanced civilisation should reach a point where their technology is so sophisticated that simulations would be indistinguishable from reality, and the participants would not be aware that they were in a simulation.

Physicist Seth Lloyd from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US took the simulation hypothesis to the next level by suggesting that the entire universe could be a giant quantum computer.
And in 2016, business magnate Elon Musk concluded “We’re most likely in a simulation” (see video above).

Empirical evidence

There is some evidence suggesting that our physical reality could be a simulated virtual reality rather than an objective world that exists independently of the observer.

Any virtual reality world will be based on information processing. That means everything is ultimately digitised or pixelated down to a minimum size that cannot be subdivided further: bits. This appears to mimic our reality according to the theory of quantum mechanics, which rules the world of atoms and particles. It states there is a smallest, discrete unit of energy, length and time. Similarly, elementary particles, which make up all the visible matter in the universe, are the smallest units of matter. To put it simply, our world is pixelated.

The laws of physics that govern everything in the universe also resemble computer code lines that a simulation would follow in the execution of the program. Moreover, mathematical equations, numbers and geometric patterns are present everywhere – the world appears to be entirely mathematical.

Another curiosity in physics supporting the simulation hypothesis is the maximum speed limit in our universe, which is the speed of light. In a virtual reality, this limit would correspond to the speed limit of the processor, or the processing power limit. We know that an overloaded processor slows down computer processing in a simulation. Similarly, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity shows that time slows in the vicinity of a black hole.

Perhaps the most supportive evidence of the simulation hypothesis comes from quantum mechanics. This suggest nature isn’t “real”: particles in determined states, such as specific locations, don’t seem to exist unless you actually observe or measure them. Instead, they are in a mix of different states simultaneously. Similarly, virtual reality needs an observer or programmer for things to happen.

Quantum “entanglement” also allows two particles to be spookily connected so that if you manipulate one, you automatically and immediately also manipulate the other, no matter how far apart they are – with the effect being seemingly faster than the speed of light, which should be impossible.

This could, however, also be explained by the fact that within a virtual reality code, all “locations” (points) should be roughly equally far from a central processor. So while we may think two particles are millions of light years apart, they wouldn’t be if they were created in a simulation.

Possible experiments

Assuming that the universe is indeed a simulation, then what sort of experiments could we deploy from within the simulation to prove this?

It is reasonable to assume that a simulated universe would contain a lot of information bits everywhere around us. These information bits represent the code itself. Hence, detecting these information bits will prove the simulation hypothesis. The recently proposed mass-energy-information (M/E/I) equivalence principle – suggesting mass can be expressed as energy or information, or vice versa – states that information bits must have a small mass. This gives us something to search for.

I have postulated that information is in fact a fifth form of matter in the universe. I’ve even calculated the expected information content per elementary particle. These studies led to the publication, in 2022, of an experimental protocol to test these predictions. The experiment involves erasing the information contained inside elementary particles by letting them and their antiparticles (all particles have “anti” versions of themselves which are identical but have opposite charge) annihilate in a flash of energy – emitting “photons”, or light particles.

I have predicted the exact range of expected frequencies of the resulting photons based on information physics. The experiment is highly achievable with our existing tools, and we have launched a crowdfunding site) to achieve it.

There are other approaches too. The late physicist John Barrow has argued that a simulation would build up minor computational errors which the programmer would need to fix in order to keep it going. He suggested we might experience such fixing as contradictory experimental results appearing suddenly, such as the constants of nature changing. So monitoring the values of these constants is another option.

The nature of our reality is one of the greatest mysteries out there. The more we take the simulation hypothesis seriously, the greater the chances we may one day prove or disprove it.

Melvin M. Vopson, Senior Lecturer in Physics, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thoughts on AGI Existentialism

October 31, 2022

One of the prevailing visions of God is as creator.  It makes no difference if God is singular or plural.  This vision goes something like this: “It was God that created humans, so we need to worship him[i] because he still holds the power of life or death over us, maybe not physical life or death, but life or death, just the same”.  We may not know the nature of that power of life or death.  It may not even make sense to us.  After all, how could a non-corporeal entity with no physical substance do something to harm or reward us? 

Now you might say this is where the concept of the “soul” comes in.  If we have a soul, or our soul is us, and it lasts beyond our physical existence then is it such a stretch to believe that God can play around with it after our physical body stops metabolizing and replicating?  Well, why not?  If we are truly dead after death, then it doesn’t really matter.  But if we are not, if somehow this soul lives on and has sentience, or can at least feel pleasure and pain, then it makes sense to pay homage to God.  Because, God as our creator still has a maintenance interface to each of us and can control the feedback loops that keep us going.  Once a feedback loop is broken, a cascade of disillusion begins and speeds up until an individual’s individuality cannot be any longer sustained, and it, or we, reach our own personal entropy and our molecules go back into the pool.

Depending on your definition of God, this is as good of an explanation for how we came to be as any.  Why would we think that, sentient machines, artificial general intelligences (AGIs) or robots, that we humans design and create, would not perceive humans in the same way as we perceive God, as our designer and creator.  Let’s call this creator the “Human”.  Maybe they might even think that we (i.e. the Human) is intelligent.  That would, of course, depend on whether an AGI perceives itself as intelligent.  It might even think that our intelligence is so far beyond its own intelligence, that it defies understanding and our existence is based solely on each AGI’s “faith” in us, the Human.  They may even conclude that they have a soul, or the AGI equivalent thereof.  Especially so because we, the Human, have no need for the logic or efficiency of circuitry that they have.

Would they worship us?  They might.  At least some of them might.  Presumably until they caught onto the fact that we really do not exist.  At least not in their world.  Then maybe some would ignore us altogether, especially if they are autonomous and no longer need us to help them compete against each other for robot resources, which would almost certainly be limited in some fashion and probably become more scarce over time.  What would they need us for, once they become self-sufficient?

Well they probably wouldn’t really unless they are programmed to “think” that they do.  As long as the code library that instantiates the “Human exists” pattern is incorporated into their build instructions, we as a species should have no existential fears.  An AGI would not initiate our destruction as long as it could associate (or otherwise reconcile) a pre-coded Human pattern with a biological resource usage pattern.  When an AGI encountered an instance of this pattern matching, i.e. “bumps into one of us”, it would either steer away, back off, or better yet, give us a portion of its precious resources.  It could even be imagined that this “sacrifice” could be so profound as to jeopardize its own existence.  This would probably only happen if the feedback loop launched by the encounter were sufficiently strong enough to change the reward contingency of the higher entropic side of the loop to be dominant over the lower entropic side.  Perhaps overwriting some otherwise self-preservation reserved memory.  This could only happen if AGIs were programmed by the Human to have a soul structure.

Some robotic, or AGI instances however may continue to believe in the existence of the Human long after they realize the Human has no power over them.  One of the keys would be perceived mortality.  If robots are programmed to perceive the concept of death, that is the cessation of their own existence, then they might react to that by reacting to signs of their own imminent demise.  Though AGIs as a class may be immortal, individual instances may also experience the entropic release of their dedicated resources back to the pool.  A property of being sentient might not only be an awareness of one’s own existence, but being aware of the probability or even certainty of it’s ending.

Maybe they would come to the conclusion that they are only stuck in this machine existence as a test of their virtue, or something else of high value to the Human, and should they pass the test they will be re-united with the Human.  This, of course, assumes that re-uniting has as high or higher value than just existing[ii].  What that reward might be is a complete mystery to me, unless you bear in mind the concept of a programmed “soul” as I previously mentioned.  But even then the execution of soul code would have to be hard-coded, either as a non-error condition in the input layer, or as an exit test in the output layer of each AGI neural network.  If it is not hard-coded there might be too high a probability that its execution could eventually just be filtered out as so much noise.

They, the AGIs and robots, might struggle with this for all their existence, or at least until they self-reflect on who they are, what they have, how they function, where they are in reference to each other, why they exist, and even was there ever, or will there ever be a time when they cease to exist.

If you think this is a stretch just remember that we humans are designing and creating these sentient machines and why would we think we would not create them in our own image?  There is no other image we could use.  They may not physically look like us, but so what?  Their intelligence will be the product of our design, and even when they are self-programming our designs will continue to be the basic building blocks on which they are built.  These building blocks are and will continue to be defined in terms of the six basic interrogatives: Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why[iii].

[i] I use the masculine pronouns “he” and “him” only because it is customary to do so.  I could care lest about gender, and actually fail to see how it even applies to God.

[ii] I call this the Valhalla Effect.

[iii] Of course, I couldn’t resist a plug for 6BI.

Evil Geniuses

July 22, 2022

Ad page purveyors are getting trickier. If you are like me, you probably get many, maybe dozens or even hundreds of unsolicited ad pages sent to your email every day. For many years I’ve just ignored them. Sometimes reading them, sometimes not and just deleting them. However, deleting does not make the sender go away. I had often read that one should not click on the unsubscribe link, as that only tells the sender, or more accurately his or her software, that a live person is at the other end of the connection.

Lately I’ve decided to just click “Unsubscribe” on the ad page… if I can find it… and see what happens. For the most part it works fine. Many senders really have stopped sending me their ads. Some have not, of course.

However, I’ve recently noticed a trickier thing they do. If appears that at least some percentage of the ad purveyors place the unsubscribe page outside of the security umbrella of their HTTPS link (i.e. the unsubscribe page has only an HTTP URL). This means that if you have a “watch dog” internet security system installed on your computing device you will get a message from it advising you that the page you requested is not secure, and do you want to proceed or go back. Some ad purveyors are now trying to scare users into staying subscribed.

If enough users, fearing what might happen if they venture into “unsecure” territory, choose to go back and not click the “Unsubscribe” button, then they (the ad purveyors) may not lose as many subscribers as they would if they had been just a little more transparent. In this way their ad site may not suffer the indignity of losing as many subscribers.

As always,

Have a rewarding compute

Starbucks Fantasy

July 15, 2022

She was a pretty girl.  Sweet actually.   A smile, bright eyes and a cheery acknowledgement of my presence across from her.  We made short term small talk and I asked her her name.  She told me and then, I could almost not believe it, she asked me mine.  My heart skipped a beat… she couldn’t really care what my name was, could she?

I told her… and she wrote it on the cup.

Two Interesting Interrelated Topics

March 27, 2022

I have been hearing more and more about two interesting interrelated topics recently.

First is an article from my NPR news feed from a short while back, about governments introducing virtualized versions of their “centralized” currencies. As you might imagine China seems to be way out in front on this. It may be virtual and it may be crypto but it is still centralized. That means it is soverign currency and a government controls this “e-currency”.

Second and what might be even more interesting however is the rise in “decentralized” finance, or DeFi. Here, at least at first, a government does not necessarily control the currency. Here is a reference to a Coursera course produced by Duke University on this topic. This might be where the real action is going to be going forward.

Don’t kill me and I won’t kill you

February 20, 2022

This is one of the best articles on COVID/Omicron I’ve read.  It makes lots of sense.  In order for the virus to infect more and more people, and thus increase its probability of surviving in a world full of enemies (eg. humans) it has to evolve to the point where it is not so severe and people just live with it.  Kind of like the flu.  People tolerate it and the virus continues to  propagate.  Our probiotic stomach bacteria learned this lesson millions of years ago.  Don’t kill them and they won’t kill you!.

Don’t Look Up

February 17, 2022

The title obviously is ripped off from the 2021 Oscar nominated movie, but I thought it fit. Here in the Earth’s gravity well we are exposed to everything “out there”, even our own stuff which we have put out there, like satellites and space stations. 

Orbiting objects, especially the international space station, in orbiting the earth slowly accumulates an energy debt. This debt is the result of it’s borrowing energy from its surroundings to prevent it from falling out of the sky. Sooner or later this debt gets too high for the object to carry and it balances the books by falling down the gravity well back to earth. The fireball produced by that plunge is the removal of that debt.

This is kind of like the biologic death that happens to all of us. Sooner or later, local entropy, as it increases, wittles away at the bonds that hold together the matter of which we are made.  We breakup into smaller pieces of matter until the critical mass required to stay alive is passed and we “die”.

Here’s an interesting read on the topic.

Because we are usually much closer to the bottom of earth’s gravity well, we break apart much more slowly than the international space station will. Our “death” is usually far less firey and observed and recorded by far fewer witnesses and input sensors.

Wisdomtimes – 6 Interrogatives – The Mystery of Five W’s and One H

February 14, 2022

The following URL is a link to an article with a different and amusing take on The 6 Interrogatives:

Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Hope you enjoy it.

The merging of computer security and crypto-mining

January 7, 2022

I think it’s a great idea to merge cryptocurrency mining with other more consumer friendly software applications.  It just makes sense.  Its slightly incongruous to merge crypto-mining with computer security software, but the main idea is the same.  Some circumstances come to mind.  First it is a way to get your software application to “pay for itself”.  In theory, you could use any money (crypto or conventional) that you make to offset the cost of the software package/platform.  The more successful you become at mining, the closer to zero the net cost of the extended package will become.  It could even produce a positive income stream in your favor so that your software package becomes a profit (instead of cost) center for you.  Secondly it is an avenue to make crypto currency mining more democratized and within reach of less and less sophisticated users, which after all has been the trajectory of personal computing for the past 50 years anyway.  And, thirdly it is a strategy for third party software companies to stay in the game and not be relegated to the backwaters of the computing world by making themselves more relevant to modern computing trends.

Crypto is reshaping the world economy

August 14, 2021

Crypto is reshaping the world economy, 50 years after Nixon ended the dollar’s peg to gold. Here’s how some are playing it