Simulated Reality

Have you ever seen The Matrix? Chances are
that you have, it’s a rather popular film. In one particular sequence the protagonist
Neo is presented with a conundrum. The red pill or the blue pill. A choice between learning
the absolute truth behind reality and the blissful ignorance of illusion. Neo eventually
decides to take the red pill and does indeed learn the truth, as horrifying as it may be.
He learns that he’s been living inside a simulation this whole time and he is now finally experiencing
true reality. At least that is what you, the viewer, is led to believe. But an aspect that
is somewhat dismissed is that the red pill doesn’t grant you knowledge of reality as
much as it completely eradicates any distinction between real and fake. Let me ask you this.
When watching the movie, did you ever question if the supposed true reality that Morpheus
and the gang exist within is actually true reality? What’s to say that they are not inside
a simulation themselves? I mean, up until this point, The Matrix was just as real as
this newfound reality. If anything, The Matrix only proves that knowing what reality is and
is not is an impossibility. And this could potentially go on for infinity. Never reaching
any sort of true actual reality if that even exists. Just a simulation within a simulation
within a simulation within a simulation… Yeah, and so on, and so on,
and so on, and so on… This video is not really about The Matrix
per se, but it’s hopefully a digestible introduction to the profound and intricate
topic of this video. The idea that the universe and reality itself
could be a simulation is not something new. We can trace similar ideas as far back as the time
of ancient Greece when numerous philosophers, around the world, alluded to the idea that
reality could be an illusion. Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou compared his own existence to
that of a dream in which he believed himself to be a butterfly. He questioned the distinction
between reality and a dream if both could seem equally real. Another example is Plato’s
Allegory of the Cave. The first part goes like this. Imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned
since birth. They are chained in such a way that they are forced to constantly gaze upon
the wall in front of them. They cannot look around the cave, at each other, nor at themselves.
All they know is this wall and nothing else. Behind them there’s a fire, and between the
prisoners and the fire, there’s a walkway. When people walk between the fire and the
prisoners, shadows are cast upon the wall. Because the prisoners doesn’t know anything
else, they believe the shadows to be real. Actual entities of their own. And when a passerby
is talking, the prisoners believe it to be coming from the shadows themselves. They have
no idea that the shadows on the wall are merely lesser copies of reality and
falsely assume that this partial reality that they can
perceive is the complete truth. There are many interpretations of this allegory
which can by applied to vast range of topics. It can be interpreted as a way of understanding
the importance of knowledge and how it shapes reality or it could be an analogy for human
ignorance and our unwillingness to seek truth and wisdom.
It could also be read like this. Just like the shadows in this cave, could our
perceived reality be a shadow of something else? In physics and cosmology there’s now a subfield
called digital physics which is a collection of theoretical perspectives based on the premise
that the universe is describable by information and as such is computable. And some of these
physicists around the world are actually trying to find out if our universe could be a simulation.
Commonly referred to as the Simulation Hypothesis. This is done by, in various ways, comparing
the real world against our own technology. If certain similarities are found, conclusions
can be drawn. One such study titled Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation
concludes that it is possible. A really simple analogy is to think of the pixels on your
screen that make up this video right now. When I move this red dot across the screen,
we perceive it as a smooth sliding action. But we know for a fact that this is an illusion
caused by the limitations of our sight. Nothing is really moving it’s just bits of information
being modified in such a way that, from our perspective, it’s perceived as motion. If
we zoom in and slow down, we notice that the red dot isn’t sliding as much as it snaps
to each individual pixel. And this is essentially what they have observed, that the universe
has a finite resolution, or an underlying lattice as they call it. This could mean that
the universe and reality is not made out of energy or matter but is instead made
out of quantized bits of information that, from our perspective,
is perceived as energy and matter. Another way to imagine a computational universe
is using what’s known as a cellular automaton. A cellular automaton consists of a grid of
cells. In this case, each cell can either be populated or unpopulated. We then need
to specify a set of instructions so that the state of each cell evolves over time based
on the state of neighboring cells. It may sound complicated but it really isn’t. Let’s
start with something simple. For example, we could say that each unpopulated cell will
become populated if a populated neighbor is found to the left. We then populate a single
cell and execute the program. What happens is that for each increment of time a new cell
is populated to the right of every populated cell. So in this case, it just continues to
the right forever. Not very interesting. Let’s make it a bit more complicated
by using the instructions of a popular cellular automata known as
The Game of Life. These are the rules: #1. Each populated cell with either one or
no neighbors becomes unpopulated. #2. Each populated cell with four or more
neighbors also becomes unpopulated. #3. Each populated cell with two or three
neighbors remains populated. #4. Each unpopulated cell with three populated
neighbors becomes populated. We populate as many cells as we’d like and
then press play. The resulting behavior is actually quite remarkable. I mean it’s not
GTA V or anything but still. What’s remarkable is that these four simple instructions can
over time produce incredible complexity. Cells can live, die, or multiply and create a sea
of seemingly chaotic randomness. Some configurations stop immediately while others seem to continue
forever. And there is no guaranteed way of telling if any specific configuration is eventually
going to stop or continue indefinitely. If we zoom out as the model continues to expand,
increasingly complex patterns begins to emerge. But not only patterns. Over time even the
behavior changes. The interactions between individual cells is overshadowed by the behavior
between entire blocks of cells. And this is the idea. That the universe began as something
incredibly simplistic like a grid of cells governed by a few simple instructions. But given enough time
it evolved into something incredibly complex. It’s only natural for us to assume that the
complexity of the universe must be very complicated. The world can often seem very confusing, random,
unpredictable, and even unexplainable. What The Game of Life quite elegantly illustrates is that
complexity can actually be the result of simplicity. If you, and I, and everything around us is
the result of computable information, it stands to reason that that information can be modified
and manipulated to an endless extent. We would be nothing more
than puppets in a theater. Maybe the simulation began seconds ago and
we only think it’s been 13.9 billion years because that information was artificially
included upon its creation. Maybe the universe is really really tiny and all distant celestial
bodies are simplistic renditions to create the illusion of enormity. Maybe nothing physically
exists until we observe its existence. Perhaps detail and complexity is added when it’s needed
instead of being constant and absolute. Perhaps discovering that this is all a simulation
is part of the simulation. Perhaps this isn’t the first iteration of the universe and someone
could be pressing the off switch right n- Don’t get me wrong. All of
what I just said is absolutely insane. But that’s kind of my point. If we accept the simulation hypothesis,
we also accept that literally anything is possible and that nothing can be determined.
Imagine that we somehow found definitive proof. So for the sake of argument, let’s say we escaped the
simulation. Then I think we could all agree that we would know that it’s a simulation, right? But we
still wouldn’t know if our escape from the simulation was simulated in and of itself.
In other words, we could still be inside the simulation. It’s a so called infinite regress
issue which means that any evidence we find or knowledge that we obtain could just as
well be simulated in and of itself. Including any evidence
that it’s not a simulation. As the extent of the illusion cannot be
determined, nothing can be determined. In the first draft of this script I addressed
many radical ideas surrounding the simulation hypothesis. But as it can all be nullified
by the asking: “What if it’s part of the simulation?”. It’s really not that interesting. There’s
little, if any, scientific value here. It’s mostly philosophical and metaphysical.
And it’s all very analogous to the limited reality of the
prisoners in the cave. So let’s change our perspective. Instead of
assuming the position of the prisoners in the cave, could we be the ones who ignite
the fire to cast shadows upon the wall? A big reason why ideas related to simulating
reality has become so popular in mainstream media, like movies and video games, is that
on the surface it seems very plausible. If we look at what we could do just a few decades
ago and compare it to modern technology, it’s easy to imagine a future wherein technology
has advanced far enough that it’s indistinguishable from reality itself. And while there’s nothing that
explicitly prevents that from happening in the future, there are definitely
limitations to what we can and cannot do. Over the past half-century the processing
power of computers has doubled every two years which is an observation known as Moore’s Law.
But this growth won’t continue forever. In fact it’s already begun to slow down. It’s
now closer to two and a half or even three years. The reason for this decline is due
to the physical limits of computation. Computers are fantastical and can do incredible things
but they are not magical. The speed at which they process information and the amount of
information they can process is, like everything else, governed by the laws of physics. For
example we will never, regardless of any potential futuristic technology, be able to
accurately replicate anything down to every single molecule,
atom, and fundamental particle. And the strange world of quantum mechanics
is to blame. There are many reasons why quantum mechanics makes this impossible but
one great example is the uncertainty principle. It states that the more precisely the position
of a particle is determined, the less precisely the momentum of that particle can be determined
and vice versa. You can think of this as a balancing board. We force the left side down
to increase precision in measuring the position of a particle, but in doing so, the right
side has to go up and thus we loose precision in measuring the momentum of the particle.
To be certain about both properties at the same time would require us to break the board,
or in this case, break the laws of physics. The uncertain and probabilistic nature of
the universe makes exact replication an impossibility. So let’s forget about any notion of exact
replication. It just isn’t, dare I say, realistic. What we can do instead is mimic reality by
approximation. Take a look at this. This is The Illustris Project. A giant cosmological
simulation with the aim of studying the formation and evolution of galaxies. It’s an ongoing
project in which scientists use the most precise data and calculations currently available
to create the most precise model of the universe possible. At its highest resolution it had a volume of
106.5 Mpc³, took several months to complete on a supercomputer with 8192 cores, used 25 TB of RAM
at its peak, and had a particle count of over 18 billion. Of course, it’s only realistic to a certain
extent and from a very narrow perspective. The simulation is detailed
enough that they can actually zoom in on individual galaxies, but it’s not
detailed enough to simulate the birth of each individual star or planet. And certainly not
the astronomical numbers of individual molecules, and atoms, and so on. Instead they have to approximate
how a galaxy behaves as a whole without actually simulating all of it’s individual parts and
properties. And once the simulation arrived at present day, the result was strikingly
similar to what we observe in the universe. And by constantly tweaking
these approximations increasingly realistic results can be achieved. Never quite
reaching true realism but hopefully realistic enough. This is all well and good for all scientific
endeavors. Things like astrophysics, particle physics, meteorology, fluid mechanics, medicine,
evolutionary biology, and the list goes on and on. But what about creating a simulation
for entertainment purposes? So far I’ve only talked about simulations
as self contained systems. You write some code, press execute, and hope for the best.
But wouldn’t it be far more interesting to create simulations that we can not only interact
with but also experience to the point of complete immersion. Software like video games are great
examples of interactive simulations and hardware like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are
some of the most immersive technologies available to the public. Well they will be soon at least.
Of course, these are only aimed at stimulating the audio-visual senses. What about everything
else? Like touch for example. Well, there’s full body suits like the Teslasuit, vests
like the KOR-FX, and gloves like the Hands Omni. These will give the illusion of actually
holding virtual objects, getting hit by bullets, and possibly even give the sensation of temperature.
Then there’s also entire systems built to create a virtual experience, usually designed
according to a specific game or game type. There’s driving and racing simulators, flight simulators,
railway simulators, etc. If you want to navigate inside a virtual environment, your best option at the
moment is something like the Virtuix Omni. All of these technologies are fantastic but
they are not ideal. They are only the beginning of the virtual reality revolution that likely
waits ahead. They are the monochromatic TV’s before color. Because the limitations of these
devices stems from their implementation. You’re always going to be aware that you’re wearing
a head mounted display or that you’re strapped into a locomotion platform. What’s eventually
going to replace these mediating technologies to create a truly immersive experience are
BCIs. Brain-computer interfaces. Research on BCIs began in the 1970s and since
then the technology has come a long way. So far the focus has mostly been on repairing
cognitive and sensory-motor functions. As an example neuroprosthetics are prosthetic
limbs that can be controlled by a persons brain. People who’s lost an arm and hand can
now get a robotic prostheses that they can control using sensors implanted in their brain.
BCIs can also be used to allow paraplegics to walk again and help people with many types
of paralysis. From an entertainment perspective, you can truly see its potential when combined
with virtual reality. The Emotiv EPOC is a publicly available BCI that you can actually
use to play games with your mind. I mean, it’s not perfect, it’s actually far from perfect
but come on. You just cannot complain when someone has quite literally invented mind
control. And better yet in 2014, the first brain-to-brain communication was achieved
between two people via the internet. In other words, telepathy
is now becoming a reality. But we’re still missing a crucial aspect.
That is CBI technology. A computer-brain interface. And this is a significantly more difficult
obstacle to overcome. In a typical brain-to-computer interface, a device receives information from
the brain and tries to interpret what that information means. The worst that could happen is that
the computer gets it wrong. In a computer-to-brain interface, the brain receives information
from a device and the worst that could happen is that you actually damage the brain of the
user. In 2002, a blind man had a device implanted onto the visual cortex of his brain which
was in turn connected to a camera. This allowed him to partially regain his vision. The camera
sent its signals to the visual cortex of his brain and his brain interpreted these signals
as if they actually came from his eyes. Another example of a CBI was used on monkeys. A monkey
would control a virtual arm to touch one of several visually identical objects. When the
virtual arm touched one of the objects a signal would be sent back to the brain of the monkey
to stimulate the sensation of touch, describing the fine texture an
object that didn’t actually exist. But there’s definitely a greater risk at play
here and it’s gonna take a while until we perfect such technology.
But once we’ve unlocked the mysteries of the brain, the possibilities
will be virtually endless. If this technology continues to advance and
is able to entirely escape the realm of science fiction, the world as we know it and the future
we often imagine, will dramatically change. When we try to imagine the distant future,
we often think of humanity as these grand explorers of the universe. It’s often just
assumed that we will continue to expand outwards far beyond the Earth and the Solar System.
Of course, this is under the optimistic assumption that no apocalyptic events takes place and
that we steadily continue to progress and innovate. Almost every non-apocalyptic futuristic
science fiction tale describes humanity as a species that will expand outwards. And maybe
that’s true. But when this technology turns into reality, why would you want to? A powerful
virtual reality could allow us to do anything and everything. No fear of harm or death,
no irreversible consequences for your actions, no physical limitations. The ability to customize
and manipulate the world around us to fit our personal needs and preferences. Just like
in a dream, maybe it’s possible to manipulate the brain’s sense of time. Real world minutes
could turn into virtual years. Could that be why the universe can seem so lifeless even
though it’s been around for such a long time? Perhaps every civilization that reaches a
certain technological maturity realizes that expanding outwards to explore
the universe is pointless when expanding inwards, using technology,
allows you to do so much more. I’ve never made a video like this before.
A video heavy on speculation and even touching on some philosophical questions. Hopefully
you don’t think I’ve gone completely insane. It’s so difficult to make a video about these
topics without sounding like you have some sort of religious faith in The Matrix, waiting
for Morpheus to come down from the heavens. It’s far fetched, highly speculative, and
mostly just fun to think about.


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