Whoa, Dude, Are We in a Computer Right Now? - This NASA Scientist Thinks We Might Be
Two years ago, Rich Terrile appeared on Through the Wormhole, the Science Channel’s show about the mysteries of life and the universe. He was invited onto the program to discuss the theory that the human experience can be boiled down to something like an incredibly advanced, metaphysical version of The Sims.
It’s an idea that every college student with a gravity bong and The Matrix on DVD has thought of before, but Rich is a well-regarded scientist, the director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is currently writing an as-yet-untitled book about the subject, so we’re going to go ahead and take him seriously.
The essence of Rich’s theory is that a “programmer” from the future designed our reality to simulate the course of what the programmer considers to be ancient history—for whatever reason, maybe because he’s bored.
According to Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles roughly every two years, all of this will be theoretically possible in the future. Sooner or later, we’ll get to a place where simulating a few billion people—and making them believe they are sentient beings with the ability to control their own destinies—will be as easy as sending a stranger a picture of your genitals on your phone.
This hypothesis—versions of which have been kicked around for centuries—is becoming the trippy notion of the moment for philosophers, with people like Nick Bostrom, the director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, seriously considering the premise.
Until recently, the simulation argument hadn’t really attracted traditional researchers. That’s not to say he is the first scientist to predict our ability to run realistic simulations (among others, Ray Kurzweil did that in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines), but he is one of the first to argue we might already be living inside one. Rich has even gone one step further by attempting to prove his theories through physics, citing things like the observable pixelation of the tiniest matter and the eerie similarities between quantum mechanics, the mathematical rules that govern our universe, and the creation of video game environments.
Just think: Whenever you fuck up there could be the intergalactic version of an overweight 13-year-old Korean boy controlling you and screaming “Shit!” into an Xbox headset. It sort of takes the edge off things.
VICE: When did you first surmise that our reality could be a computer simulation?
Rich Terrile: Unless you believe there’s something magical about consciousness—and I don’t, I believe it’s the product of a very sophisticated architecture within the human brain—then you have to assume that at some point it can be simulated by a computer, or in other words, replicated. There are two ways one might accomplish an artificial human brain in the future. One of them is to reverse-engineer it, but I think it would be far easier to evolve a circuit or architecture that could become conscious. Perhaps in the next ten to 30 years we’ll be able to incorporate artificial consciousness into our machines.
We’ll get there that fast?
Right now the fastest NASA supercomputers are cranking away at about double the speed of the human brain. If you make a simple calculation using Moore’s Law, you’ll find that these supercomputers, inside of a decade, will have the ability to compute an entire human lifetime of 80 years—including every thought ever conceived during that lifetime—in the span of a month.
Now brace yourself: In 30 years we expect that a PlayStation—they come out with a new PlayStation every six to eight years, so this would be a PlayStation 7—will be able to compute about 10,000 human lifetimes simultaneously in real time, or about a human lifetime in an hour.
There’s how many PlayStations worldwide? More than 100 million, certainly. So think of 100 million consoles, each one containing 10,000 humans. That means, by that time, conceptually, you could have more humans living in PlayStations than you have humans living on earth today.
What is reality?