March 9, 2006

Welcome to the Unreal World

We're more likely living in a simulation than not, philosophers say, adding a new twist to the age-old question: How are we to live?

By George Dvorsky, March 1, 2004

Without a doubt some of my favorite video games of all time have been those that involve simulations, including SimCity and The Sims.

When I play these simulations I fancy myself a demigod, managing and manipulating a wide array of variables that impact on the game, including the environment and the simulated inhabitants themselves. With each passing year these games become evermore realistic and their degree of sophistication is becoming nothing short of profound.

Recently, for example, a plug-in was developed for The Sims allowing the virtual inhabitants to entertain themselves by playing none other than SimCity itself. When I first heard about this I was struck with the vision of Russian Matrioshka nesting dolls, but instead of dolls I saw simulations within simulations within simulations.

And then I remembered good old Copernicus and his principle of mediocrity: We should never assume that our own particular place in space and time is somehow special or unique. Thinking of the simulation Matrioshka, I had to acknowledge the possibility that we might be Sims ourselves. Considering the radical potential for computing power in the decades to come, we may be residing somewhere in the Matrioshka.

Consequently, I'm faced with a myriad of existential, philosophical and ethical questions. If we are merely simulants, what does it mean to be alive? Are our lives somehow lessened and devoid of meaning? Should we interact with the world and our fellow simulants differently than before we knew we were living in a simulation? How are we to live given such existential doubt? How are we to devise moral and ethical codes of conduct? In other words, how are we to live?

Believe it or not, we should live virtually the same way as if we were living in the "real" world.

Malicious demons

A little over 350 years ago, philosopher René Descartes was struck by a rather disturbing thought. Is it possible, he wondered, that what we think of as reality is nothing more than an elaborate hoax?

Descartes, who was writing in his Meditations on First Philosophy, conceived of this possibility while formulating his principle of methodological skepticism. He was trying to find a fundamental set of principles that he believed could be known without a modicum of doubt. According to his methodology, any idea that can be doubted should be doubted.

Consequently, Descartes doubted a lot, including the efficacy of our senses to convey reality as it truly is. He used the example of dreaming to illuminate the point. When dreaming, our senses perceive things that seem real, but do not actually exist. "Thus what I thought I had seen with my eyes," he wrote, "I actually grasped solely with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind." From this observation Descartes concluded that we cannot rely solely on our senses, as they may not be telling us what is necessarily true.

Taking this line of inquiry further and applying it to the "real" world, Descartes thought it conceivable that the reality we take for granted may actually be a complex hallucination orchestrated by some kind of powerful intelligence, what he referred to as a "malicious demon."

"It is at least possible that there is an all-powerful evil demon who is deceiving me, such that he causes me to have false beliefs, including the belief that there is a table in front of me and the belief that two plus three equals five," wrote Descartes. The all-powerful evil demon, he argued, could feed us whatever experiences he chooses. "I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment."

Undeniably, Descartes was on to something, but because of his place in time and history, he was unable to formulate sound technical explanations to describe how such a hoax could come about, save reference to supernatural intervention.

More recently, however, philosophers and scientists have come up with novel theoretical scenarios describing how such a hoax could in fact be perpetuated. Thirty years ago philosophers envisioned vats with floating brains that were fed sensory experiences. Today they envision powerful haptic and neural interfaces, virtual realities and sophisticated supercomputers running elaborate simulations.

Indeed, given the radical potential for supercomputers and our growing understanding of mental state functionalism and cognitive computationalism, we are coming to realize that even consciousness is subject to analog-to-digital conversion. And while we no longer speak of demons, we now consider the work of superintelligences running simulations of mind-boggling complexity and power.

The simulation argument

No longer relegated to the domain of science fiction or the ravings of street corner lunatics, this "simulation argument" has increasingly become a serious theory amongst academics, one that has been best articulated by philosopher Nick Bostrom.

In his seminal paper "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" Bostrom applies the assumption of substrate-independence, the idea that mental states can reside on multiple types of physical substrates, including the digital realm. As he notes, "a computer running a suitable program would be conscious."

Similar to futurists Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge, Bostrom believes that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Moore's Law, which describes an eerily regular exponential increase in processing power, is showing no signs of waning, nor is it obvious that it ever will.

"Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct," writes Bostrom. "One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears." And because their computers would be so powerful, notes Bostrom, they could run many such simulations.

This observation, that there could be many simulations, led Bostrom to a fascinating conclusion. It's conceivable, he argues, that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original species but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of the original species. If this were the case, "we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones."

Essentially, Bostrom's argument is this: If humanity survives to the point where it's possible to run simulations of forebears, and our descendents desire to do so, then there would be vastly more simulations than realities and a greater likelihood that that we ourselves are living in a simulation.

Ending substrate chauvinism

As shocking as the simulation argument is, it's a revelation that's no less shocking than previous existential paradigm shifts. While undoubtedly disturbing to the people alive at the time, previous civilizations have come to grips with the knowledge that they do not live on a flat Earth nor at the center of the Universe.

Like the simulation argument, these previous scientific epiphanies assaulted humanity's sense of itself and its cosmic importance within the Universe. But just as it no longer troubles us to know that we don't live at the center of the Universe, it shouldn't bother us to know that we don't reside in the deepest reality. While it's tempting to diminish the "realness" or the validity of a virtual world, so long as certain attributes of existence exist, there's no good reason to value one realm over another.

This being said, there are a number of unanswered questions about the type of simulation we could be living in—answers to which could have a profound impact on our self-conception.

We do not have the means yet to determine whether or not we live in a simulation, let alone the means to determine its potential type and nature. But this hasn't prevented serious speculation.

Philosopher Barry Dainton, for example, in his remarkable essay "Innocence Lost: Simulation Scenarios: Prospects and Consequences," attempts to describe and categorize possible simulation types and varieties of virtual life.

Dainton differentiates hard and soft simulations. Hard simulations result from directly tampering with the neural hardware ordinarily responsible for producing experience whereas people running in a soft simulation have no corporeal source—they are exclusive streams of consciousness generated by computers running the appropriate software.

The inhabitants of The Matrix had bodies that existed outside of the simulation, thus qualifying it as a hard simulation. Sensory experience could be directly machine-controlled through the stimulation of the appropriate areas of the sensory cortex and the movements of the simulated body would be under the control of the source mind, but there would be no need for the source body to actually move. As Morpheus noted, "What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see...then real is simply...electrical signals interpreted by your brain."

Dainton also describes active and passive simulants. Actives are completely immersed in virtual environments, but they are in all other respects free agents—or, as Dainton concedes, free as any agent can be. Their actions are not dictated by the program, but instead flow from their own psychologies, even if these are machine-implemented. Passive subjects, however, have a completely preprogrammed course of experiences. "The subjects may have the impression that they are autonomous individuals making free choices," writes Dainton, "but they are deluded." All their conscious decisions are determined by the program. They have apparent psychologies, and are conscious, feeling agents, notes Dainton, but their real psychologies are entirely suppressed or nonexistent.

Other varieties of simulated life include subjects who have either retained their original psychologies or are given entirely new ones. Simulation experiences could also be communal or individual. Communal simulations have a virtual environment that is shared by a number of different subjects, each with individual and autonomous psychological systems. In an individual simulation, however, there is only one real subject with an autonomous psychology; the other "inhabitants" of the simulation are merely automatons, parts of the machine-generated virtual environment.

These simulation and virtual life types can be combined in various ways. For example, a simulant could be in a hard communal simulation with an active but alternate psychology (for all you know, while you may think that you are you, you might actually be somebody else who is experiencing your life). Or, an individual could be in a soft simulation with a passive psychology. There are many other permutations, including iterations involving communal simulations with combinations of virtual life types.

If powerful simulation technology were to be commonplace, claims Dainton, it is by no means inconceivable that these simulations, particularly those of the hard variety, would be generated in sufficient numbers. "People might take virtual reality 'trips' to the past quite frequently," he argues. "They would certainly be used on an occasional basis during history lessons, and more intensively by historians, amateur and professional, with a particular interest in what it was like to live during certain periods of the past. But such trips might also be taken—far more frequently—for entertainment purposes." The soap operas of the future, predicts Dainton, might well have an immersive and interactive character that present-day shows lack.

How are we to live?

Given these numerous simulation scenarios, it's quite obvious, at least to me, that we don't know enough about our situation to alter our behaviors or moral sense. Until we have more empirical evidence, we should assume that we're not living in a simulation. Moreover, if we come to find it increasingly likely that we are living in a simulation, we should play it safe and assume that we are living in a communal simulation with active participants with original psychologies.

Unfortunately, not all philosophers agree with this strategy. Economist Robin Hanson, in his presumptuous essay "How to Live in a Simulation," makes some rather drastic suggestions about how we should act given the simulation possibility.

"If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal you should care less about others," declares Hanson. "Live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you."

The reason for this, he argues, is that it's likely that the decisions we make in the simulation will have a direct bearing on the "real" world. Consequently, Hanson believes that we should tailor our actions to maximize their impact on the real world. It's conceivable, for example, that should the simulation not go according to the designers' plan they will simply hit the reboot button. "The only decision implications are for those who care about influencing 'real' history, or care about being thought of well by 'real' people," says Hanson. "After all, if this is a simulation, the only way to influence the real world is to somehow influence whoever is observing this simulation."

The trouble with Hanson's argument, however, is that he assumes we are in a specific type of simulation. In this case, he assumes that the simulation is an exact faithful reproduction of all of human history—a soft and communal simulation running active simulants.

While Hanson's argument makes some sense given the particular scenario he describes, I don't believe that he is justified in making such a grand assumption. It is the ethicist's duty to ensure that actions produce as little harm as possible to the self and others. Taking Hanson's course, you would immediately alienate yourself from friends and peers and quite possibly harm yourself and others.

Rather, despite the seemingly radical implications of our discovery that we might be living in a simulation, we really don't need to change much about ourselves and how we act at all. Harkening back to Descartes, because we still do not know the true nature of reality and ourselves, our existential skepticism must lead us to err on the side of caution. In other words, we should continue to honor our established and enlightened moral sense.

And despite where we might exist in space and time, our lives still have merit, purpose and meaning. We need to stay the course and continue to uphold our values and respect for life regardless of the substrate.

Now if you'll excuse me I think I'm going to play some SimCity.

Copyright © 2004 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, March 1, 2004.

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1 comment:

Richard B said...

Has Professor Bostrom ever commented on how he resolved
the ethical dilemma that popularizing the simulation argument might itself constitute an existential risk? If he then felt the simulation hypothesis (not the SA) had a 20% likelihood, how would he have discarded the possibility that the simulator(s) would only maintain a simulation with unaware sims?