When a friend recently asked me what I would think if we ultimately discover that any “life” that exists on other planets turns out to be robotic or AI, I didn’t realize that I had inadvertently opened Pandora’s proverbial box . Because then it started. You know— that frustrating endless loop that you get caught up in when you start to ask the questions that just lead to more questions. What if ET are actually robots? But if they, are who “created ” them? Or, more discombobulating– what if we are all robots? Or –scarier yet—what if we are all living in a computer simulation? What if the Universe is a simulation?
Apparently, all of the above are theoretically possible. That is, if you believe ( and I’m not sure if this is a matter of “belief” but it sure will ultimately challenge any faith that you have ) the scientists and experts in the field that are positing such a theory. And they are now out there talking about it. Over the past few years, I have heard vague rumblings about this kind of theory, most famously–references to the fact that Elon Musk ( whom I generally admire for his vision and pioneering efforts in space exploration and travel ) believes that we are all living in a computer simulation. And I have a couple of friends who periodically engage in tongue in cheek cynicism, including my friend Yoriko, who says that she is pretty sure that we are living in some kind of cosmic petrie dish as subjects of an experiment ! ( she’s kidding, of course–at least I think she is! I will have to invite her to do another guest post under “Yoriko’s Rant”)
I used to chuckle at the creativity of these kinds of metaphors and images but confess that I had never given the concept any serious consideration.
But that changed on March 27th when I was happily working in my office, with an ear tuned to CBC ( Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ) show “The Current” with respected journalist, Anna Maria Tremonti. ( see link) I am a regular listener and Ms. Tremonti is known for her gravitas and insight into a variety of social and political issues . Her guests are always high quality and professional so my attention was riveted when she introduced Dr. Rich Terrile, NASA Astronomer and Director of the Centre for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at JPL ( Jet Propulsion Laboratory ) as her guest on an episode called “ Our reality is just a computer simulation” .
What??? OK—now you have my attention. A NASA scientist and professional astronomer posing what I had previously considered a clever but clearly crackpot theory? I was riveted and paused from my work, as I did some heavy lifting to push the borders of my mind, with all its biases and preconceived notions, to ensure that it was open wide enough to receive this new information.
First of all, let me say that my mind and my eyes have already been opened as the result of a recent work assignment that I completed for a client on how automation and the new technology will impact the worksite. As the result of my extensive research for that assignment, I learned a lot about automation, autonomous machinery, virtual reality and AI ( Artificial Intelligence) and how quickly that is changing our society. In short, it is coming at us like a speeding train so it was already on my radar.
Ms. Tremonti begins the interview by asking a well composed and articulate Dr. Terrile to explain the theory, which is obviously a good place to start as I’m sure that this is not a topic of everyday conversation for most people. This is not a simple concept to condense down to the Cole’s Notes version but it goes something like this: Our Universe conforms to a mathematical model and therefore is computable. Which means that it can be simulated through a series of equations. We are already doing that now through “virtual reality” and look at how sophisticated some of these games are already and we are in the early stages. OK–so far, so good. I get that.
But the difference between us and the VR characters is that we have consciousness and they don’t, right? Not necessarily, says Dr. Terrile. Consciousness is an emergent property which means that is it something new that can ( and does ) arise as a natural consequence of something. So, in other words, it doesn’t have to be endowed by something or somebody —like God! Well…Ok….I’m still listening but this is admittedly, getting a bit weird.
Now, take what we know so far and extrapolate into the future and Dr. T. says that we can take what we know already and create a sensory environment that is indistinguishable from reality- or at least what we think is reality. We could do that in the future. Or perhaps we already have and we are already living in a computer simulation!! OK–now my head is starting to hurt as I continue to push those mind borders. Ms. Tremonti astutely ask all the questions that you and I would have asked. Who is watching us now and what exists outside of this world we are in? Answer: we don’t know but there is a good possibility that the reality that we are living in now only exists when we are there to observe it. Oh dear—that reminded me of that head scratching conundrum from Philosophy 101: If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound only if there is someone there to “hear” it?
So, if you accept any or all of this, the questions begs to be asked: Who ( or what) is at the controls? Dr. T. suggests that one theory is that it is our future selves. What? The first thing I thought of is , if that is the case, then I would like to have a talk with my future self. In looking at all the pitfalls, challenges and losses of my life ,I would demand to know why she/me couldn’t have come up with something better. And then I would be reminded of all the blessings and joys of my life and then I would say–oh yeah—thanks, girl:) The other thing that occurred to me is that perhaps this complements the theory (or actually more of philosophy) that there are no accidents in the Universe and that we are all here to learn something. But is that something for our personal and spiritual development or to progress to the next level of the game??? 🙂
There is much more and I would highly recommend that you listen to the full interview or even check out some of Dr. Terrile’s other talks on the Internet. But one thing that really did resonate with me, and this where the faith/ religion part comes in, is where Dr. Terrile, who was born and raised Catholic, references the Baltimore Catechism, a book that I remember well from my Catechism classes at my childhood Catholic school. He even referenced the opening question which really brought back memories for me:
Q: Who made me?
A. God made me
And so on. Dr. T. readily acknowledges that this simulation hypothesis moves us into the realm of diminishing the divinity and miraculous nature of God. After all, if consciousness is an engineering feat, aren’t we all potential “gods” of our own simulated Universe? And then, doesn’t science just become another form of religion? Yup–this is a real mind bender!
And of course, the one really big question that is hanging in the balance over all of this is —WHY?? It is the fundamental question that drives our human desire to find purpose and meaning in our lives and I highly doubt that can be programmed into a virtual version of ourselves. Or, in Dr. Terrile’s model- maybe it can be…I’d like to ask him:) He seems like a nice enough guy so I thought that I would go on the hunt to find some contact information to see if he would talk to little old me. So far–he seems pretty elusive and I can’t even find an email address but I will keep trying and report back on what I find out.
In the meantime, this “simulation hypothesis” is out there so sooner or later you may be hearing about it. Famous astronaut and science educator, Neil Degrasse Tyson is apparently a believer ( although, he probably wouldn’t like that term so let’s say proponent) and I recently read that 2 tech billionaires are funding scientific research on “breaking us out” of this computer simulation. Yes, you read that right.
I believe that we need to keep our minds open to all possibilities , no matter how far fetched they may seem, so I am treating this material with the respect that it deserves. A colleague recently forwarded me an article about advances in 3D printing that make it possible to “print” a small house in 24 hours. Yes, it’s true and I watched it all unfold on a time lapse video. If you had told me this as little as 10 years ago, I would have laughed. What will you be telling me 10 years from now?
Assuming that you are still out there and don’t cease to exist once I complete and close my post, I would really love to hear your thoughts on this. 🙂
*Please see the below link to listen to the interview with Dr. Terrile