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Which of these characters is the human and which is the android? Can’t tell, can you? [Image: HBO]

A few weeks ago, I started watching Westworld on HBO. I’m a few episodes behind, but it’s been really good so far – however, it’s also been more than a little bit unsettling, and is yet another example of how what were once far-fetched fantasies dreamed up by Hollywood and novelists are becoming less escapist entertainment and more cautionary tales. In case you’re not familiar, the basic premise of Westworld revolves around robots, indistinguishable from human beings, who serve as “hosts” in a Wild West theme park, there as a means for the human guests to act out their fantasies without consequence.

The robots don’t know they’re any different from their human visitors, until they slowly begin to suspect that something isn’t right with their “lives.” It’s not hard to predict that a violent clash with their human creators is going to ultimately take place. Just a short time ago, such a storyline would have been a far-out fantasy, but today, it’s a frightening look at what actually could happen if we get too carried away with our development of artificial intelligence.

What has been sticking in my mind, however, is less the concern that our own creations are going to rise up against us (at least this year; who knows where we’ll be in another?) and more the thought that WHAT IF WE’RE ALL ROBOTS OURSELVES? What if we’re part of some grand experiment or marketing scheme in which we’ve all been fabricated in a lab and the real human beings are watching us and making sure we don’t get too far out of line?

It all sounds like the ramblings of stoned college kids at 3AM – until the experts start weighing in. Stephen Hawking has already warned that if we’re not careful, our robotic inventions will one day overthrow us, and now billionaire tech genius and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has validated the theories that have been flying around among nerds and stoners since The Matrix came out in 1999 – yes, we could very well be living in a simulated world.

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Whoa.

At this year’s Code Conference, which took place at the beginning of June, Musk commented that in his opinion, “there’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality.” And he’s far from alone in that view. In 2003, University of Oxford professor Nick Bostrom published a paper entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” in which he posed some compelling reasons to believe that we are, in fact, living in the Matrix.

The paper is well worth a full read, but one of Bostrom’s arguments points to our own rapid advancements in computer simulation and virtual reality. If we continue to develop such technology at our current pace, he said, then we will soon get to the point at which we are creating virtual worlds populated by conscious beings. Once realistic simulations of the universe are possible, there will quickly be more simulations of reality than reality itself, and if that’s true, then the odds of us being part of an actual reality are pretty slim – maybe even as slim as a billion to one.

It’s known as the simulation problem, and it can quickly twist your mind into a pretzel. It reminds me of one argument in favor of life on other planets – we live in such a vast, largely unknown universe that the odds of us being the only life form, or even the only intelligent life form, are pretty tiny, and it displays a certain amount of arrogance to think that we’re even the most advanced life form in existence.

Look at what we’ve been doing with virtual reality lately. We’re using 3D scanning to place realistic versions of ourselves into video games and apps, for example. We’re developing devices that allow us to physically feel objects in the virtual world. We’re touring places that haven’t existed for thousands of years – which leads us to another one of Bostrom’s theories: that we’re computer simulations of the ancestors of a more advanced race.

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This Pompeii home looks pretty good for having been destroyed in 79 CE.

It may sound completely bonkers, but think about it for a minute. Bostrom wrote his paper in 2003, well before we developed the capabilities to create realistic virtual reality tours of places that no longer exist. Now that we have those capabilities, it’s not that far-fetched to think our next step might be to create realistic virtual people to populate those historical places. And as we continue to develop more and more advanced artificial intelligence technology, how long will it be before those virtual people become autonomous, and even conscious? According to Musk, such developments are inevitable.

“Forty years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality,” he said. “If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”

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Elon Musk extrapolates at the 2016 Code Conference.

Not all scientists buy into the simulation theory, as The Guardian points out in a recent feature. Many more do believe it, however, than you might expect, and none of them are fringe types. Rich Terrile, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agrees with Musk that we’re inevitably progressing toward a future in which virtual, artificially intelligent beings outnumber humans.

“If one progresses at the current rate of technology a few decades into the future, very quickly we will be a society where there are artificial entities living in simulations that are much more abundant than human beings,” he said. “If in the future there are more digital people living in simulated environments than there are today, then what is to say we are not part of that already?”

That’s one of the common threads that runs through most of the arguments in favor of the simulation theory: Why not? If we have the ability to create virtual worlds and artificial intelligence, than how do we know we’re the first? If our virtual and robotic creations can think, than how are they different than us, and how to we know we’re not the creations of some higher species? (Again: mind pretzel.) According to Terrile, it’s simple physics.

“Even things that we think of as continuous – time, energy, space, volume – all have a finite limit to their size. If that’s the case, then our universe is both computable and finite. Those properties allow the universe to be simulated,” Terrile said. “Quite frankly, if we are not living in a simulation, it is an extraordinarily unlikely circumstance.”

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Nick Bostrom

Rather than disturbing, Terrile calls the idea that we’re living in a simulated universe “beautiful and profound,” and looks forward to the near future in which we will be able to create – and populate – our own simulations. In fact, the idea that we’re not living in a simulation is actually more disturbing according to some, including Bostrom.

If we’re not living in a simulation created by a more advanced civilization, he argues, it’s not because we’re the first and only intelligent civilization – it’s that no other civilization has lasted long enough to create a simulated universe of intelligent virtual beings. In other words, we’re not the first to develop this kind of technology, but the the beings that got to this point before we did were destroyed somehow – maybe by their own technology. If that’s the case, the future doesn’t look great for us, does it?

If that’s the case, we should listen to Stephen Hawking and proceed with extreme caution. But if we are simulations in a simulated world, then the simulations we create will add one more layer to what could be a massive Russian nesting doll of a universe: the beings simulating us have in turn been simulated by another civilization before them, and so on. I hope you’re not reading this right before you go to bed, and if so, I apologize for any mind-twisting insomnia that may ensue. I blame Nick Bostrom. Discuss in The Matrix forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: The Guardian]

 

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