Thursday, 4 June 2015

Our Simulated Universe

An Initial Advisory: I need to say this from the get-go, that there is no connection whatever, in this essay, postulating a simulation scenario that includes us, between a supernatural all-knowing, all-powerful creator God and what I see as a flawed flesh-and-blood creator person (or extraterrestrial) actually responsible. This 'Supreme Simulator' is no God (with a capital G), any more than the creator of a video game is a God (with a capital G). This has absolutely nothing to do with a supernaturally based religion; everything to do with the natural order and evolution of technological things. This is science (or technology); not superstition or mythology.
Unlike God, for those who believe in a loving God, the Supreme Simulator may not give a royal stuff about you and your fate any more than the creator of a video game cares whether the characters in that creation live happy ever after or not - probably not. I mean, if you simulated billions and billions of humans; generations and generations of them, and assuming you're not all knowing and all powerful, could you keep track of them all?
Now one is perfectly entitled to reject the truism of this simulation hypothesis. I'm not sure I really believe it myself. But of course what we believe or disbelieve is ultimately irrelevant - it's all a function of what is, or is not. While the simulation scenario is straight forward enough, being able to prove, or disprove it, is the real intellectual challenge. That's the issue I'm attempting to think through. And sadly, while I'd like to claim this as my own, the idea isn't original with me - far higher intellects than I have pondered this and there's a massive degree of literature in academic journals and web sites on the possibility.
Terrestrial Examples of Current or Near Future Simulations:
*The Practical: Simulation scenarios prove useful in dealing with everyday traffic management issues and of course the military use them for war-game purposes. Engineers use them to figure out things like will this aircraft fly if we build it this way? Can we build a bridge this way using these materials of such and such a length? It's far cheaper to simulate first - build afterward - secure in the knowledge that what you build will work. Available on the market are all manner of brands of automobile navigation simulations in virtual map form that can guide you from point A to point B without muss or fuss.
*Training: Airline pilots, air traffic controllers, astronauts, medical doctors can practice on simulators first to gain proficiency. Simulations could prove useful in driver training, before actually going out on the road.
*Scientific: Many scientists use simulations to examine 'what if'. Program these set of initial conditions; add these relationships; run for a period of time and see what happens.
*Education: One can explore the planets of the solar system; the realms of interstellar and intergalactic space; the depths of our terrestrial oceans, and other realms too where it isn't really practical or realistic to send someone in person. Data acquired by robotic probes can be translated into simulations that we all can enjoy.
*Entertainment: Video games! Quite apart from that, it's now possible to create entire feature films (note: not cartoon or animation) where all characters and all environments are 100% simulated. No filming on location; no actors need apply for the parts. There's also the tourist trade without all that messing about with airlines and hotels and taxis and suitcases and bad weather. There's all manner of virtual tourist guide packages where you can 'visit' cities and all their tourist attractions (traps).
*Role Playing: It's difficult to insert yourself into a video game, but eventually the technology might be available to do just that. The best futuristic example is the holodeck that features in the latter Star Trek incarnations.
There's one important facet of your life that's already virtual or simulated - at least in theory if not in actual practice. That is, your personal finances. I mean, we've heard of the so-called paperless office (which never really did come to pass - yet). Now we have the virtual wallet and simulated purse. I mean, your payslip or pension is deposited electronically into your account at your financial institution. You can arrange to have your standard bills paid automatically from that account; or you can go online and pay your bills yourself - electronically. You can shop online or at brick-and-mortar stores without the need to carry cash - just use your credit or debit card. You can pay your credit card bill online, or at your financial institution without any cash actually changing hands. You can even use your credit card now to get a soft drink at the vending machine!
At regular intervals your financial institution will send you a piece of paper, or you can see it online, telling you what your accounts are worth. In short, it's now possible to go through your entire financial day-to-day existence, within the entirety of your financial world, without actually having to see or handle actual cash. Money is all virtual money; financial transactions are all simulations of what used to be cash transactions.
So we see that there is nothing unusual with the simulation idea. As an aside, one should note that as little as 100 years ago, such imaginations as would postulate such activities as simulations would have either been writers of fiction or individuals consigned pretty much to the 'nice young men in their clean white coats; coming to take me away, ha-ha, he-he, to the funny farm' set! Given the exponential grown in computing crunch power, what might 100 years from now be like with respect to simulations of reality? Writers of fiction are still pretty safe in speculating; others might still be expecting visits from those 'nice young men in their clean white coats'! All too often however, futurology guesstimates ended up erring too much on the side of caution. What's sort-of expected 100 years hence often proves to be reality in a far shorter time frame. That holodeck might be closer than we think! Now, what kind of simulation might be possible of an extraterrestrial civilization a thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand years in technological advance of ours? A simulation of our Universe (or at least Planet Earth) to them might be as sophisticated as Pac-Man is to us.
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