Tag Archives: Nick Bostrom

Are we and our world a computer simulation?

There is a fascinating Dec. 10, 2012 news item on Nanowerk about a philosophical question that’s being researched by a team of physicists at the University of Washington (Note: I have removed a link),

The concept that current humanity could possibly be living in a computer simulation comes from a 2003 paper published in Philosophical Quarterly (“Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?“) by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford. In the paper, he argued that at least one of three possibilities is true:

The human species is likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.

Any posthuman civilization is very unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history.

We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

He also held that “the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”

Here’s what the University of Washington physicists, from the Dec. 10, 2012 University of Washington news release by Vincent Stricherz, which originated the news item,

With current limitations and trends in computing, it will be decades before researchers will be able to run even primitive simulations of the universe. But the UW team has suggested tests that can be performed now, or in the near future, that are sensitive to constraints imposed on future simulations by limited resources.

Currently, supercomputers using a technique called lattice quantum chromodynamics and starting from the fundamental physical laws that govern the universe can simulate only a very small portion of the universe, on the scale of one 100-trillionth of a meter, a little larger than the nucleus of an atom, said Martin Savage, a UW physics professor.

However, Savage said, there are signatures of resource constraints in present-day simulations that are likely to exist as well in simulations in the distant future, including the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used to model the space-time continuum.

The supercomputers performing lattice quantum chromodynamics calculations essentially divide space-time into a four-dimensional grid. That allows researchers to examine what is called the strong force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature and the one that binds subatomic particles called quarks and gluons together into neutrons and protons at the core of atoms.

“If you make the simulations big enough, something like our universe should emerge,” Savage said. Then it would be a matter of looking for a “signature” in our universe that has an analog in the current small-scale simulations.

Savage and colleagues Silas Beane of the University of New Hampshire, who collaborated while at the UW’s Institute for Nuclear Theory, and Zohreh Davoudi, a UW physics graduate student, suggest that the signature could show up as a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays.

In a paper they have posted on arXiv, an online archive for preprints of scientific papers in a number of fields, including physics, they say that the highest-energy cosmic rays would not travel along the edges of the lattice in the model but would travel diagonally, and they would not interact equally in all directions as they otherwise would be expected to do.

“This is the first testable signature of such an idea,” Savage said.

If such a concept turned out to be reality, it would raise other possibilities as well. For example, Davoudi suggests that if our universe is a simulation, then those running it could be running other simulations as well, essentially creating other universes parallel to our own.

“Then the question is, ‘Can you communicate with those other universes if they are running on the same platform?’” she said. [emphasis mine]

Here’s the citation for and a link to the arXiv.org paper by Beane, Davoudi, and Savage,

Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation by Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi, Martin J. Savage (Submitted on 4 Oct 2012 (v1), last revised 9 Nov 2012 (this version, v2))

Fascinating, yes?