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Life As A Video Game?


The New York Times today has an article cover the notion that our universe is really just a computer simulation. While this isn’t really new, the angle John Tierney takes is rather humorous: the ‘creator’ in this case is really just a posthuman geek, sitting at home creating an ancestor simulation while drinking the posthuman version of Mountain Dew.

While this may be rather silly, the idea that our existence is really a simulation is rather mind blowing. We’ve all seen The Matrix, but unlike the movie, we can’t wake up from the simulation, pull the cranial plug and then act all emotionally cool like Keenu. As Dr. Bostrom, director of the Future Of Humanity Institute at Oxford (how do you get that gig?) put it:

technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Assuming we last long enough and are able to create powerful enough computing devices that is. This causes me to think of the book, Programming The Universe by Seth Lloyd. Lloyd looks at cosmology through the lens of information theory. Basically, the universe is a giant quantum computer that just happens to be computing everything we see around us, in effect, a galactic scale simulation. One that is indistinguishable from a big enough ‘artificial’ simulation, with the unanswered implication being we are in a simulation created by someone/thing. A very interesting read.

Back to the story, many things could happen in the future to prevent a ‘simulation’ from being created, such as humanity wiping itself out, losing interest in the past, or even having other, better methods for investigation the past. So there are some outs in this theory if you wish. It all depends on what you feel our chances of survival as a species are.

It’s rather scary to think that everything around us is nothing but a World Of Worldcraft ‘game’, created by posthumans for entertainment. If so, you have to wonder at the huge level grinds they’ve implemented. Maybe being a pocket god isn’t as exciting as you’d think. And what about all the PKers (player killers) or what happens when the server crashes?

Anyway, this is one of those philosophical discussions that is interesting to think about, even if there is little to no practical use to the theory. I just find it interesting how the simulation notion actually has some support from branch of cosmology.

I also thought I’d try something a little different. Below you will find a list of books and movies that touch upon this notion. Enjoy. But a word of warning, if you haven’t seen/read what’s mention below, you may be spoiled by knowing they are included in this post.



About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

12 Comments on Life As A Video Game?

  1. But how does this fit into the Mundane SF Manifesto?


  2. That book you can’t remember, wasn’t Dante’s Equation by Jane Jensen was it?

  3. Greg Egan’s DIASPORA, one of my favorite SF novels, includes an interesting simulated world where the simulating “computer” is an aquatic colony of single celled organisms (or something of that sort, if I recall correctly)—not to mention that the main characters are software entities living in simulated computer environments—though they are fully aware of this fact.

    I’ve read most of what Nick Bostrom has written on the argument that, given a few not-especially-improbable premises, its most likely we live in a simulated world.

    I was surprised to find that his argument struck me as quite reasonable (disturbingly so).

  4. Chris Johnston // August 14, 2007 at 7:39 pm //

    I thought Egan’s book was called PERMUTATION CITY?

  5. Anonymous // August 14, 2007 at 7:43 pm //

    The third book on your list may be “The Reality Matrix” by John Dalmas (1986).

  6. joshua corning // August 14, 2007 at 7:54 pm //

    Yeah reading the article the first thing that came to mind was Permutation city…

    Egan actually took this idea farther. In his book it does not matter if you turn the computer off, because we live in a holographic universe the simulation would continue.

    Great book by the way.

  7. Chris Johnston // August 14, 2007 at 8:20 pm //

    By the way, Nick Bostrom’s site has been around for years…

    Guess the NY Times guy just now discovered it.

  8. Bob Hawkins // August 14, 2007 at 9:10 pm //

    Our universe is clearly a simulation, and a crummy one. I’ve written enough bad code to recognize it, even from the inside.

    Which raises the question: What is the purpose of the simulation? What is the desired output?

    At this point in history, the best candidate is “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Suppose, in the real world, JK Rowling got the world’s worst case of writer’s block and never wrote the seventh book. An entire generation grows up with an aching hole where Book 7 is supposed to be. Quantum computers develop exponentially, just like digital computers did in the previous century. The Potter Generation wants one thing before it dies.

    So there it is. We’re all logic gates in a fanfic generator.

    I figure they’ll let the simulation run through the movie based on “Deathly Hallows.” Might as well.

  9. You could add Tron to your movie list. While the film centres on programs living in their world that’s generated by the Users/humans in the “real world”, there’s certainly an implied question underlying the film about whether the “real world” is, in fact, itself a construct – especially in the fade-out at the end where the cityscape bears a resemblance to a circuit board.

  10. Tim Bartik // August 15, 2007 at 7:55 am //

    Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World” might be added to this list about a simulated reality, used in this case to test out advertising approaches.

  11. Egan did write PERMUTATION CITY…great book, and so often overlooked in the list of contributors to ‘cyberpunk’ themes.

  12. DBE, that chapter of Greg Egan’s Diaspora was originally published as a short story called Wang’s Carpets. Wang’s carpets were made of self-catalyzing glucosides as tiles that directed the fit of the next layer. (see Wang tiles) The characters in the book find out that the carpets simulate an entire universe (found by performing multidimensional Fourier transforms on the tiles) which appears to contain intelligent beings. Worse, these beings could have no knowledge of the “real” world that they live in, sugar carpets on a planet around a star in our universe. This precipitates a philosophical crisis in the story.

    I know people that won’t read Greg Egan books because they are “too hard”. In the realm of hard-sf, Greg Egan would be diamond. Permutation City also started life as a short story, that title of the original story was “Reality Dust”.

    To add to the collection of simulated worlds I would suggest, James P. Hogan Entoverse (part of the Giants series), where the computer accidentally simulates intelligent life which tries to get out, and the Verner Vinge novella “Cookie Monster” which explores the morality of simulating minds.

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