One extraordinary concept of modern thought is the idea that life as we know it and perceive it may not be as real as it seems. This theory holds that each one
of us may represent no more than a model within a giant computer simulation run by a super civilisation of the future.
Post Human Civilisation.
Some even theorise that such a program may actually be the work of a post human civilisation out to construct a vivid and totally authentic simulation of what life was like thousands of years in the past. This of course
means that we would be living out a simulation of events as a form of entertainment orchestrated for the enjoyment of a civilisation that may not even be of human origin.
Just to emphasise the true depth of this concept it is important to mention that this simulation would be just one of
millions like it, all run to different specifications and each one representing a distinctly altered view of the world as seen from the perspective of billions of separate individuals.
The name of this idea is Ancestor Simulation.
Not so crack pot.
You may suppose ideas of this sort are eccentric beyond words - something so far fetched it would be too ludicrous to
contemplate. However in today’s altered academic environment that now includes the String Theory, Chaos, Quantum mechanics, and time travel , the arrival of an idea
like Ancestor Simulation is surprisingly sane and one that some scientists and philosophers are treating with a great deal of respect.
Ideas of being imprisoned within cyberspace have already formed the inspiration for numerous films like the Matrix. In
fact the idea of Ancestor Simulation has been around for quite some time. However it did not receive widespread publicity until 2001 when Nick Bostrom from the Department
of Philosophy at Oxford University in England wrote a paper entitled “Are you living in a computer simulation”?
With great scholarly logic Bostrum argues that a post human civilisation of immense computing power would not hesitate
to inaugurate major computer simulations accurate to the tiniest level. This would include sentient but simulated individuals that could accurately mimic the real world at any
given stage in history. Bostrum argues that “we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation”. In the abstract to his paper, the final version of which appeared in the
Philosophical Quarterly (2003), Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.
Bostrum writes the following:
This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to
go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history
(or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
It couldn’t be done?
Many people may find the idea that we are living in a computer simulation to be uniquely absurd. Those that even
care to dignify the idea with a reasoned response point out that it would surely be beyond the realms of even a super civilisation to produce computers of the immense capability necessary to churn out apparently limitless simulations with the fine
grain complexity needed to depict the world and Universe around us.
Bostrum however believes otherwise. In his paper he states that the idea of a super civilisation running millions of ancestor
simulations would represent no more than a tiny fraction of their over all capability. He writes:
“the computational power of a planetary-mass computer is 10^42 operations per second, and that assumes only already known nanotechnological designs, which are
probably far from optimal. A single such computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) by using less than one millionth of its
processing power for one second. A posthuman civilization may eventually build an astronomical number of such computers. We can conclude that the computing power
available to a posthuman civilization is sufficient to run a huge number of ancestor-simulations even if it allocates only a minute fraction of its resources to that purpose.”
Well on the way.
Some would argue that we are already well on the way towards the technology that would make Ancestor
Simulation possible. Each year sees a virtual doubling of the speed of computer processors and with it the possibility of introducing ever more realistic graphics. Games and other
3D software applications can now be made to look very convincing and almost wholly like the real thing.
The fact is that images created solely in cyberspace can now seem every bit as real as the so called real world. Take
the image below for instance. This was created in a software package Bryce 5 using digital wire framed models over which are rendered terrain patterns, clouds and water.
The end result is a totally authentic looking landscape that was created solely by the digital process.
Remember too that this 2 dimensional image can also be animated to take the viewer through a virtual 3D journey of a
landscape that never existed outside of the computer.
The obvious question is how long will it be before technology finds a 360 degree answer to a simulated chamber that is
100 per cent indistinguishable from the supposed world we see around us?
And today’s software capability does not just stop at amazingly lifelike 3D images of landscapes. It also encompasses very real and convincing 3D models of people and animals. Take for instance the portrait at right. This was created
using a software package called Poser 5.
The result is a female portrait that comes very close to a real life figure. And yet this figure never existed in the real world and is a product of
modern digital technology. Moreover this figure can be fully animated to talk and walk and move her head from side to side with full eye movement
and to all intents and purposes resemble a human figure.
This then is the reality of what can be achieved at present and available to anyone with a home computer. But just
imagine what might be possible after one million years of continuous upward development in computer simulation techniques. By this time it is more than conceivable that
simulation may have reached the point where it is not only possible to duplicate exact and indistinguisable images of human reality - which we can just about do now - but also
give them the ability to think and act for themselves.
The truth is that perhaps we cannot even come close to imagining the true extent of what is possible - that’s always
provided that limits do exist. In other words nothing that we can possibily imagine in terms of simulated technique is beyond what humans may one day achieve
Till now we have considered the technical difficulties relating to the outward look of an ancestor simulation. But what about the whole host of other values that make up the world we live in.
After all human beings are not unresponsive shells. They have feelings and emotions, personalities and identity. For any authentic simulation to
seem believable it must be able to incorporate all these attributes both seamlessly and automatically.
Some believe that this would be far beyond the capabilities of any technology whether now or in the future. However the
idea of Ancestor Simulation and its time of inception was never envisaged a definite X number of years in the future, but more as an indeterminate age even up to millions of
years hence. Therefore it is quite possible that within that time period - assuming a continuous level of progress - massive developments in the world of nanotechnology and
artificial intelligence would not only make Ancestor Simulation so much more possible, but also make it possible on a thoroughly vast scale.
Degree of resolution.
One of the most prominent criticisms against the idea of Ancestor Simulation concerns the degree of detail it would
have to incorporate. Some say it would only be necessary to go down to the atomic level while others argue that today it would be imperative to extend this level of resolution to the
entire spectrum of sub atomic particles. This would naturally involve a great increase in computing power but since not all simulations would require this degree of resolution it would
be included as an add on effect when needed.
At the other end of the scale it is often wondered what level of fine grain resolution would be necessary to depict the Universe. Here - so the theorists say - things would be greatly helped by the fact that Mankind
is currently unable to extend much into space beyond the realms of his atmosphere.
Therefore a great deal of resolution is not necessary and since travel to the vicinity of even the nearest
stars is not envisaged for the foreseeable future there would be no requirement for any Ancestor Simulation to incorporate much fine grained detail when it came to mapping out the skies.
Religious and moral implications.
The idea that we are living in an ancestor simulation is bound to raise profound questions concerning the relevance
of religion. If - as the theorists maintain - we are part of a vast simulation, indeed one of billions, then what implications does this have for the world of religious belief?
Theorists inevitably point out that religious belief, or the lack of it, would be as much a part of the simulation process as anything else. In other words religion would be no more or
less important than it is to us now.
But can simulated beings have souls? Moreover would these simulated sentient beings be capable of religious and
spiritual feelings, or would they simply be responding to impulse messages designed to simulate religious feelings by stimulating a certain area of their artificial intelligence?
These are the flood of endless questions that arise from this argument which in certain circles are argued back and forth
with immense vigour and enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism. There are also those who point out that Ancestor Simulation in no way cheapens or distorts the value of any religious
faith as it represents a world within a world, controlled by beings, themselves a part of the creative process and therefore subject to a Master Creator whose handiwork they are.
One of the greatest objections to the idea of Ancestor Simulation concerns computer crashes. Everyone who has
ever handled a computer knows they are subject to crashes or general protection faults. These faults generally occur when the computer is put under pressure to expend
resources that are simply beyond its capabilities. To protect itself the computer simply locks up and then needs to be rebooted. This also happens when running poorly written
software or using devices and accessories that have not been properly configured.
As computers become ever more advanced these crashes are gradually becoming less frequent but they do still happen and no doubt will continue to do so for
some time to come.
This inevitably invites the question that if indeed we are living in an Ancestor Simulation, then we should also be subject to all the usual norms of
computer usage. That is corrupted data, slow running graphics, or indeed the dreaded crash. Yet nothing like this appears to be happening. The world continues to revolve in
all its breathtaking beauty with not a dropped frame in sight.
Surely then this proves that Ancestor Simulation is just a baseless myth. Not necessarily say the critics. It is probable
for instance that the computer technology of the future will be far removed from its present form, involving methods and techniques that right now would seem beyond all comprehension.
There is talk for instance that the computer of the future would not need millions of lines of preprogrammed code but
would work to the instructions passed to it by our very own thought patterns. This is just an example but serves as an illustration of the way computers might one day work. In
terms of operating power the streamlined equivalent of the processor, harnessing the secrets of particle physics, might have virtually unlimited resources with very few overheads in
terms of memory and processing speed. In effect a kind of frictionless energy that would have the potential to last for a staggeringly long period of time.
Where are the failures?
In the course of any technology there are initial failures. But what would a system failure entail within an Ancestor
Simulation. Would it be the end of the world as we know it? Would the whole Universe suddenly vanish from view? These might seem like ridiculous questions but within the
logic of Ancestor Simulation they are of fundamental importance. And what if the operators suddenly get tired of running the simulation. What happens then? After all today’s
hot game is tomorrows expensive failure - unwanted even in a bargain basement charity shop.
So if we are indeed living in an Ancestor Simulation we need to keep the people running the program interested and
happy. The cynic would undoubtedly suggest that this is probably why we have so many wars in the world and why this planet has never been a particularly peaceful place. A
question they would say of simple entertainment.
While the idea of us being in an Ancestor Simulation has to remain unproven it is nonetheless a fascinating subject. Our
own fascination with laboratory rats and reality TV prove that we do have a bizarre urge to observe the behaviour of others. Given the technology of the future - say in 2 million
years time - there is literally nothing we can think of that may be impossible to them. Ancestor Simulation may even come to be one of the least interesting pursuits - one just for the
crusted academics of the day. However we cannot escape the conclusion that given an upward course of development realistic Ancestor Simulation like cloning will become a big
part of future life. A life in which a bored young child finds entertainment by running a game as real as the world you see around us today.
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