• Michael Van

Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

I must preface this next entry by acknowledging my comprehension of the material is extremely limited - and while the prose is original, the concepts herein are not. So just know i'm butchering the hell out of it into mystery meat.

Let's begin!

The Matrix

The popular sci-fi movie The Matrix (1999) introduced a future where artificial intelligence had overtaken the mass of human civilization and used human body heat to fuel its own machinery. These future Humans living in the Matrix experience life through a sensory computer network resembling the life as we know it today. They are simply unaware that their consciousness is digitized. It goes to point out that the brain and nervous system, while complicated, is a tangible mapping of electrical signals. With enough detail and knowledge of our central nervous system, our feelings of touch, smell, sight, taste, sound… could be simulated. And for what it’s worth, without having had sensory experiences in the true, physical world, one wouldn’t know the difference to compare it to. “How do I even know what chicken tastes like” remarks one character.


More recently, in the tv show Westworld (2016), we are presented with a future where our technological ability to replicate humans into an artificial robot is so realistic that we cannot discern between robot and human. That if you give a machine a vast algorithm of character attributes, desires, aversions, and probabilistic decision-making, that it is essentially conscious. How could we ever do that?

Let’s create a errr… simple anecdotal example - You program a machine to identify any pressure above a certain threshold, say enough PSI to break a human bone, as “pain”. You then program it to have an “aversion” to pain, perhaps by registering past events that came close to this mechanical threshold. If a Roomba can remember and detect where the stairs are, this isn’t really a stretch. So we have a machine that knows to avoid pain as it has been described. But then you create a competing “Desire”. Let’s program it to collect tacos as its strongest desire, because fuck it, tacos.


Now we put the machine in front of some tacos with a slowly crushing weight on top of it. What will it do? Depends on the programming. We assign different values to the aversions and desires, and then mix in a bit of probability. Maybe the machine on some days is willing to take bigger risks of getting crushed for more tacos, because it has been a while since the poor little thing has had any taco-nabbing success. A poor example, but the idea is: we can translate the physical world and its stimuli into digital perceptions and create probabilistic decision-making based off of these perceptions. The leap of imagination, if you will, is having the depth of detail, and computing power to reproduce such a complicated sentient being as ourselves.

What Westworld much more eloquently and efficiently delivers is two-fold.

  1. Given a complex enough algorithm of decision-making based off of desires, aversions, memory, and probability, we can mimic human consciousness with extreme fidelity.

  2. Human consciousness really is just an algorithm, and a predictable one, and that fate and predetermination are realities. We don’t actually make our own decisions, our free-will is only an illusion masked in complexity of the human algorithm.


In 2003 Nick Bostrum proposed something that is a mix of some of the Matrix and Westworld ideas. “Technological Maturity” is defined as having the capability to simulate not just an artificial human, but an entire civilization, it’s entire world, and it’s entire history, inside a computer program – called an “Ancestor Simulation”. Here is his Ancestor Simulation Theory (butchered up course)

At least one of the following must be true:

  1. Civilizations go extinct before they reach technological maturity

  2. Civilizations reach technological maturity but do not have any interest in simulating the ancestor program

  3. We are currently living in a computer simulation

Looking at #1, That humans (or any other intelligent life) goes extinct before it has the technological capacity to build ancestor simulation programs. Nuclear warfare, viral and biological outbreak, huge asteroids hitting the earth, taco-nabbing machine takeovers, pick your poison. There are a number of dark outcomes we are capable of achieving prior to reaching technological maturity. However, given the span of time, and the size of the universe, all we would need is for ONE civilization (ours or not) to reach such advanced science for us to be living in their computer simulation.

Looking at #2, That a future civilization can create such ancestor simulations, yet simply chooses not to run such program simulating the lives of a much earlier human civilization. Well, what reason would someone in the future even have for running a simulation on us and the time we currently live in?

I’ll give a few:

  1. Because the simulations could be predictive in determining if intelligent life, or artificial intelligence exists somewhere else in the expansive universe. You don’t know who or what may be doing the simulating. Future humans? Future other intelligent life? Future AI? Maybe they create some models of nearby galaxies, run the simulations, and use the collected data to pinpoint the most probable place to go looking for cousins.

  2. Entertainment. Whose to say this isn’t someone’s game we are playing in?

  3. To predict the future. If the ability exist to simulate the past, why would the timeline stop at the present time of the being running the simulation? With enough computing power, why not simulate the infinite set of possible outcomes until the end of time? As with any set of data, it would probably produce a spread chart of most probable outcomes which could feasibly show our future.

What about reasons not to run the ancestor simulation program? Ok:

  1. Economics. It’s too expensive and wasteful of computing resources.

  2. Ethics. Pain, as we described earlier, is just a sensory electrical reaction to physical stimulus. We evolved to feel pain so we would avoid doing things that killed us. It serves a great purpose. That being said, electric sensory stimulus or not, pain is something we try to avoid inflicting. If you look at how our universal ethics have changed just in the past 150 years, from slavery, to women and gay rights, to animal welfare, it wouldn’t be surprising that in the future we choose not to inflict digital pain on digital beings.

Finally let’s look at possibility #3: We are living in a computer simulation. The vastness of time, space, and the exponential trajectory of computing mechanics today makes this a very plausible theory. It would only take one super-techy civilization to create one simulation for us to be living in it.

What’s more, if a future civilization or a future artificial intelligence civilization were running the ancestor simulation, which time period do you think they would most likely want to put under a microscope? Most certainly NOW, in the early stages of AI development, wherein the micro choices we make concerning the creation of AI would be particularly consequential for the future of technology. It makes me all the more suspicious then, that I just happen to be cognizant and alive at this potentially monumental and perhaps most critical point in human history. Doesn’t that seem suspiciously convenient, that we would be so special?

Here’s another weird thought. That the simulations could go vertical. That is, within any run of an ancestor simulation, the simulated civilization goes far enough in its own future that the participants in that simulation advance to the point where they, themselves, also begin running their own ancestor simulations. And so on and so on. Yikes, so like the dream within a dream within a dream, we should consider how far removed from a true, physical reality we just may be.

Pictured: Me, doing my laundry

Time is a Flat Circle

So – what are we to make of this possibility? What are the existential consequences? I’d like to bring up another show that tangentially intersects the ideas here at play. This time it’s True Detective Season 1.

McConaughey is the delusional nihilist homicide detective, believing that we are trapped in a circular life that replays itself over and over, meeting the same outcomes. That the ego and consciousness are a genetic misstep, and tragically so. So why does he willingly participate in these meaningless cycles of life?

Because he is programmed to do so.

Thanks for reading!

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