January 29, 2023

Revisiting the Simulation Hypothesis (With a Side of Solipsism)

Recent advances in technologies like AI, VR and BCIs tell a much more plausible story about the origin and nature of life than most other explanations. It’s time we treat the simulation hypothesis as the dominant framework for understanding reality, rather than just a fringe idea.

Let’s start by imagining you’re a character in a video game. As you begin your journey you are told that you are born in the year 1995, which is the number of loops the giant sphere you’re standing on has made around this other giant sphere called The Sun, since some Jesus dude was born.

You’re also told that you were born from a mother and a father, and perhaps that you have siblings. Together you are a family. Your family might be rich or poor, and speak one language or another. You are told that the ancient Egyptians built the giant pyramids, that the universe came to be around 14 billion years ago, and that you are made out of 40,000,000,000,000 cells each with a copy of the same instructions called genes.

The idea of narratives is beautifully portrayed in Westworld:

Now the problem is, you weren’t there when any of these things happened. As far as your character is concerned, these are all narratives that you hear from other characters (who are NPCs as you go through the game of life. In fact, there’s an abundance of characters in this game, and they all sound conscious and intelligent like you, with plenty of stories and narratives–from COVID-19 to Donald Trump to ChatGPT to some Elon Musk guy who wants to colonise Mars. And of course, these stories often carry some physical evidence with them too, such as fossils of dinosaurs, or getting ill if you’re exposed to a virus–so they’re more than just a spoken narrative.

Imagine also that this whole game with its many layers–from the very fundamental like the laws governing the movement of objects to the most detailed like individual characters and their narratives–was created the moment you entered the game, i.e. were born, and will end the moment you leave the game, i.e. die. That makes you (or me!) the only real” thing in this video game. The rest is a simulation. A game.

Turns out this is an age-old idea in philosophy called solipsism, which states that only one’s mind is sure to exist” and of course it’s one of those ideas that is near impossible to accept or deny. So what’s the point of revisiting it? Great question, read on!

Recent advances in AI (think large language models such as ChatGPT) as well as technologies such as virtual reality, computer graphics and Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), guide us towards a fresh look at the idea of solipsism, as a flavour of the simulation hypothesis.

Consider where we are today and where we’re going with some of these fast-developing technologies:

Is it that hard to imagine a virtual world with a near-perfect sense of physics, hyper-realistic graphics, and characters that appear conscious and act in intelligent ways? I don’t think so. My intuition tells me we’ll have all of this within the next 20 years.

So if you entered this virtual world in 20 years time and somehow forgot that you’re in a video game, you could theoretically experience something pretty close to what we call life today, assuming we can feed and maintain your body in this world while you play the game. Whether it’s still governed by the same laws of physics, with constellations of round orbiting planets and galaxies, and the same biological ruleset, is to be seen.

Meanwhile, in our layer of reality, we’re probing every aspect of our existence every single day to learn more about what’s going on. From biology to physics to astrology, every day we gather more data in increasingly more nuanced ways using new and more sophisticated sensors that we constantly develop–be it cryo-EM microscopes, particle accelerators, or the James Webb telescope.

Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1. The Big Bang happened and it triggered a cascade of events each with near zero probability. Eventually planets were formed, life started on Earth, and billions of years later you and I came to existence.

Scenario 2. One or all of us have entered a hyperrealistic simulation in another reality/universe.

If you break down each of these scenarios into the individual events that must have taken place in order to ultimately produce that scenario, and then consider the individual probability of each of those constituents, Scenario 2 seems far more likely to happen/have happened.

The jury’s still out on why large language models such as ChatGPT perform so well, and whether they’re just regurgitating words using surface-level statistics, or if they gain an actual understanding of the real world. Regardless, I think we can all agree that as you cover more and more of the existing and possible information in a system, a large enough and expressive enough model and the actual underlying reality asymptote towards one another.

Yet again, the creators of Westworld captured this idea very nicely:

“Real”-ness could simply be an illusion“Real”-ness could simply be an illusion

Perhaps a virtual world created this way–by training large AI models on data from all of our reality–will have limits to how much novelty it can produce. But it’s worth keeping in mind that our” reality isn’t limitless either–for instance, we know that the universe has a speed limit of 300,000 km/s and that the shortest physically measurable distance is the Planck length which is approximately 1.616255×10^−35 m.

Some final words

I’m not going to lie, as someone who struggles with the idea of death, I find a lot of peace in interpreting life the way I described above–as a video game that was created when I was born and that will be destroyed when I die.

It also often makes me wonder how one wins this game. Perhaps it ends the moment you figure out that it is, in fact, a video game and write about it on Medium! And maybe when it ends, you see your score, which is the number of years it took you to figure this out in this round of the game!

Ultimately what I’m confident about is that the simulation hypothesis needs to be given far more attention and thought going forward, given the current trajectory of new technologies.

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