In an earlier post on the question of whether we’re living in a simulation, I wrote this:
It could… be argued that if we’re living inside a simulation, and if we were to discover evidence of this fact, it wouldn’t make any difference, since there would be no chance of “breaking out”. (I’m always amused by the endless stories in pop culture—from Tron to Star Trek: The Next Generation to The Matrix and many others—in which there appears to be a one-to-one correlation between software portrayals of entities and their physical equivalents, and it’s possible to transition from one state to the other, usually (and conveniently) looking quite similar in the process.)
Which led to an insightful comment by one reader, the crux of which was this:
Why do you think there would be no chance of breaking out? I too, have wondered before if we are living in some entity’s simulation or petri dish (and, sometimes wondered, am I a robot?) but my experience in this universe/simulation is that programmers/creators take shortcuts all the time and cannot design/implement things flawlessly. (Note that I’m not using creator to refer to a deity, but any creative entity.) There is inevitably an error in the networking and overlap of the larger simulation’s parts, where we can slip out of the simulation.
I replied in the comments, but I’d like to expand upon my comment here.
The reason that I believe that any simulation would be inescapable (absent external intervention, as described below) is not that I think any simulation creator might be infallible; far from it. I believe that any simulation would be inescapable because my strong hunch is that the medium (or substrate, or nature of the underlying universe, as you prefer) of a simulation would be so very different from the medium of the beings that create it.
Any simulation would be inescapable because the medium of a simulation would be so very different from the medium of the beings that create it.
Let’s try a gedankenexperiment. If you’re not familiar with John Conway’s Game of Life, it’s probably the most famous example of a cellular automaton. A two-dimensional grid of cells that can be “on” or “off” comprises the “universe” of the game. The grid is updated from generation to generation all at once, and four simple rules determine whether a given cell is on or off in the next generation. Conway’s Game of Life (which I’ll refer to here as the Game of Life) has been implemented on virtually every general-purpose computing device known to mankind.
I once saw an estimate that if one had it running on a monitor the size of the Solar System, that might be large enough for self-replicating life forms to emerge through natural selection. I can’t find this reference but it’s not necessary, since my thought experiment doesn’t depend on the specific requirements but rather that basic concept: that the Game of Life provides the substrate for a virtual universe rich enough that given sufficient virtual time and space, intelligent life could evolve. (1) Let’s imagine that we have a virtual universe large enough and the computing power to run it and that we run a version of the Game of Life that does lead to self-replicating life forms.
In our thought experiment, we can run this simulated universe at super speed and so we enable the equivalent of hundreds of millions of years of evolution in a very short time. Perhaps we use artificial selection to accelerate the process of moving from simple to sentient creatures. Whatever the specific process, we reach the point where we have intelligent life forms living inside Conway’s Game of Life. It’s easy for me to imagine the existence of such life forms and vastly more difficult for me to imagine how they might work in practice. What would the equivalent of potential energy be in their world—organized blocks of specific patterns? Would they “consume” less intelligent life forms for their stored patterns? How would they perceive the world around them? What would they believe to be the nature of the universe? Yikes, this is complex!
Anyway, let’s imagine that we have in our version of the Game of Life intelligent, self-replicating life forms, and let’s imagine that they invent their equivalent of “technology”. We can imagine individual pixels in the Game of Life screen as roughly equivalent to atoms (or even sub-atomic particles) and very large (millions or billions of displays) structures that accomplish tasks under the command of the life forms. We can even imagine them creating computing devices, which is a pretty cool thought.
So now that our imaginary life forms have devices, advanced technologies, and even computers, they start to wonder, “Could we be living in a simulation? Could our very universe be nothing more than code running in some unfathomably large and powerful computer?” Of course, the answer is yes, which we know because we’re the ones running the simulation.
With all that as backdrop, two questions:
1. How would these life forms (could we call them “Game-of-Life-forms”?) develop technology sophisticated enough to enable them to perceive and demonstrate the existence of the simulation in which they exist?
2. If the Game-of-Life-forms manage to perceive the existence of the simulation in which they exist, and decide that they wanted to break out of it, that they want to inhabit a physical universe as opposed to a virtual universe, they they want to not exist simply at our whim, how would they do so? (2) How would they, using technology available to them, translate themselves from the Game of Life into our universe?
I can imagine answers to the first question. A Game-of-Life-form which is that universe’s equivalent of a physicist might posit that certain computational errors would creep into a simulation, and Game-of-Life-forms might search for such computational errors as proof of the simulation-based nature of their existence. This is analogous to humans who have posited some form of jitter at the most basic level of our own universe as a telltale sign that we are, in fact, simulated.
But for the life of me, even as a science fiction question, I can’t imagine a possible answer to the second, at least not without our cooperation. And perhaps that’s the only answer—a sympathetic human who wishes to fulfill their desires and comes up with a way to transfer them to physical form. Without that sympathetic human, how would our Game-of-Life-forms ever make the transition from their universe to ours?
Footnotes after the break.
1. Although I’m unable to locate the specific reference cited, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine the scale of a monitor the size of the Solar System. I believe that I saw that reference about 15 years ago, when a reasonable average number for pixel density would have been 72 pixels to the inch, or 28.3 pixels/centimeter. A kilometer is 100,000 cm on a side, so at 28.3 pixels/cm, a km2 would contain 28.3 * 100,000 * 100,000 pixels, or 283 billion pixels. The radius of the Solar System (technically, the semi-major axis of the planet Neptune) is 4.503 billion km, and a = πr2, so the approximate area of the Solar System is π * 4.503 billion * 4.503 billion, or π * 20.277 quintillion km2, or 63.702 quintillion km2. That’s 18.027 * 1030 pixels, or 18.027 nonillion pixels. To put that in perspective, that’s significantly more—billions of times more—than the estimated number of stars in the universe.
2. Were they to succeed in their efforts and fulfill their desire to transition from their virtual universe to our physical universe, it might be for naught. After all, once any universe is demonstrated to be simulated, then the obvious next conclusion is that other universes are simulated, including simulations “up the chain” from one’s own simulated universe. In other words, our Game-of-Life-forms might realize their dream by translating themselves into a form compatible with existence in our universe, only to find that we, too, are simulated. In the verse of Victorian era mathematician Augustus De Morgan:
“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”