A walk through on simulated realities.

Rene Descartes once imagined an “evil demon”, causing him to present himself an “illusive reality”, that “I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement”. In other words, this demon forced Descartes to believe in an alternative reality forsaking the current, materialistic reality. Descartes published his work back in the 17th century. This work was mainly published as a means of philosophy in doubting the reality, and exploring other plausible realities. Descartes believed that in order to dwell into other realities, one must seriously doubt that we live in a materialistic and absolute reality, and must ponder on other possibilities so that it would yield opinions other than the preconceived and accepted notions on the contemporary.

This notion is not that alien to us. Every now and then, we meet someone who have given some — although not serious — though about this topic: are we living in a simulated reality. Giving it a farcical spin, we might ponder whether we live in a world inside some alien child’s “snow globe”. We might think “how would we know, if in any case, we’re puppets providing enjoyment for an alien?”, how would we know that we live inside a simulation?

Nick Bostrom’s Paper.

Traversing through the literature, I found plenty of references pointing to a one, quite mind blowing, paper written by Professor Nick Bostrom at Oxford, published in 2003. In the paper, Prof. Bostrom cites R.J. Bradbury’s “Matrioshka Brains” thesis, which discusses a convergence of technological advancements to an eventual “megascale, superintelligent thought machines”. A mild utilization (less than 1%) of Matrioshka Brains — with mass of planetary scale, Prof Bostrom argues, can be used to harness a simulation of the entire human history which consumes roughly about 10³³ to 10³⁶ operations. Furthermore, he emphasizes that creating a simulation is all about the granularity of information. The microscopic structure of the universe need not to be simulated, not to mention the quantum nature of matter. All a “posthuman” civilization (we’ll call them Gen A), which has achieved the “simulation point” (i.e. the capability to simulate) need to present is what the inhabitants inside the simulation (we’ll call them Gen B) look for. However, like our physicists constantly peering down into the quantum states of things, the inhabitants of the simulation might also dwell into scientific pursuits. In that case, the Gen A civilizations have two options. They can either devise the simulation down to the quantum states (which would consume power), or hack the Gen B person’s brain who probes down into the undeveloped realms, and like Descartes’ Evil Demon, present an illusion.

The core of Prof. Bostrom’s paper is the Simulation Argument, which focuses on the question that if there are civilizations that can simulate their history (a.k.a. ancestor-simulation), how can we, as a civilization assert that we’re not in one of those simulations? In devising the core idea, Prof. Bostrom provides three hypotheses that can occur. He further states that at least one of these propositions ought to be true. He arrives to these points using rigorous arguments and equations, which have been lopped out from this article for brevity.

  1. A civilization may die before achieving the simulation point (fₚ = 0 in the paper)
  2. A civilization may not want to create a simulated reality (f₁ = 0 in the paper)
  3. There are many and many simulated realities by many civilizations (fₛᵢₘ = 1 in the paper)

As the paper progresses, Prof. Bostrom invokes the “bland indifference principle” (BAP) among the three propositions. The BAP states that in absence of proper evidence of propositions, agents should believe all the propositions equally. However, in More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded, he states that despite our commonplace preconceptions, a degree of belief of 20% is worth the consideration given the limited information we have.

The Quantum and Simulation

When the golden age physicists peered down into the quantum state of things, they discovered that matter is all about information, just like 3D printers, these days, encode objects into information. The famous argument by John Wheeler “It from bit” is evidence. Quantum mechanics is one such reality where materialistic world is represented by information functions.

To emphasize the Copenhagen interpretation on quantum indeterminacy, Edwin Schrödinger presented a thought experiment. A cat lives inside an enclosed box, along with some poisonous radioactive material. Therefore, the existence of the cat can be explained as a probability wave. The cat is either alive, or dead: i.e. the probability of existence of the cat is 50% either way. Only by observing the state of the cat one can collapse this probability wave into a certainty: i.e. either the cat is 100% alive, or 100% dead (the cat being sick is still in the alive state). We call this indeterminacy in quantum mechanics. Quantum indeterminacy is not evident in macroscopic state of things. Only when you peer down to the plank scale you get to experience these “surprises”. It is very baffling such that it even made Richard Feynman say “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”.

In 2018, a group of MIT physicists resolved to renew Bohr’s idea of Quantum Entanglement, that is, two entangled particles showing a link irrespective of where they are in space and in time. The group found evidence for the entanglement using photons of light that is 600-years old. This phenomenon defies relativistic physics. For this link to exist, the Einstein-imposed cosmic limit of speed, the speed of light, needed to be violated. The entanglement was instantaneous.

How can the principles of entanglement and indeterminacy be used in a simulated reality? Well, the principle of indeterminacy’s sole focus in on observation. As we’ve discussed before, the choices that a Gen A “architect” has are also linked with observation! The architect needs only to design what’s observed by the Gen B. This significantly reduces the number of bits that we need to run our ancestor-simulation. Furthermore, in Quantum Data Compression of a Qubit Ensemble, Rozema et al. used the behavior of entangled photons to significantly reduce the number of qubits exponentially to represent information. In the paper, they argued that they could reduce information of 3 qubits into two.

So, indeterminacy and entanglement can be used as optimization techniques for the simulation. There are also a body of literature devising constants which define the materialistic world (mass, space and time) based on Plank units, by using a “virtual electron formula” which a simulator would use.

Simulation and Doomsday Hypotheses

Computer games are prone to lags or “glitches”. The same is applicable for a simulation. In Rizwan Virk’s talk on the subject, he emphasizes the concepts of “Deja vu”, and “precognitive dreaming” as “glitches in the matrix”. So this error-prone simulation may incur such situations, and the worst thing that can happen is the inhabitants inside the simulation becoming aware of these glitches. Not only glitches — but also things like viruses and cheat-codes. Once they become aware, the Doomsday Hypothesis posits, it would effectively determine the ultimate demise or termination of the simulation. There are several scenarios, identified in literature as possible causes for the termination.

  1. Exhausting the resources of the base reality i.e. the simulators running out of juice to keep the simulation going.
  2. Singularity termination i.e. shortly after the creation of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), it would create its own singularity simulations, and lead to the 1st point (exhausting the resources). There is also a chance that the newborn AGI would get merged with the creator.
  3. Simulation of global catastrophes i.e. inside the simulation people could test “the end of the world”.
  4. Glitches and/or viruses i.e. the simulation may have to be terminated or reloaded.
  5. Simulation awareness i.e. the people inside the simulation becoming aware of that they are inside a simulation.
  6. Natural termination i.e. people inside the simulation die

This is all conjecture, but they are possibilities if we’re inside a simulation. It is quite ironic and troubling to heed that whence we wade in to understand our own universe — and to understand ourselves, the simulator has the ability shut us down.

Contemporary Simulated Realities

In Matrix, Neo is offered with two pills. Take the red one, Neo is told, and he would discover “the truth”. Take the blue one, and he would be living as he lived before. “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”, Neo is told, and it goes on: “You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch — a prison for your mind”.

From the movie The Matrix

Virtual Reality, and variations of mixed reality are technologies that are on the current pathways of designing a contemporary simulated reality. It augments artificially made digital experiences onto our field of vision. When we imagine, what we essentially do is creating a world that is virtual in its entirety. Hallucination, for instance, is a form of augmentation of virtual — imagined — entities into the fabric of real world. Also, there are literature that argue hallucinations are a different form of imagination — a degeneration of sensory imaginations. But despite these distinctions, what is certain of all types of imaginations is that they are temporary. They last for a short while and they disappear. Dreams, for instance, are forms of imagination that last only for a night. Sorrow fills us when some dreams end, but in certain cases, it brings us ease. Dreams, therefore, are a form of self-simulation. These temporary visions are made into reality by using techniques such as Virtual Reality.

Technologies like Virtual Reality, however, use head-mounted displays to augment the content, and people are aware that they are put into a virtual world. If our universe is a simulated reality, people seem to have no awareness of it. The Matrix is a simulated reality which is “fed ”or “beamed in” into the inhabitants through the brain using an apparatus. The simulated reality is not projected like contemporary virtual reality equipment do, but they are projected into the neurons themselves. The level of immersion, in The Matrix, is 100%, unlike contemporary techniques of designing virtual worlds. Brain-Computer Interface is, therefore, a vital and crucial portion of work that needs to be addressed on our way of designing an ancestor-simulation.


Prof. Bostrom posited that it could be the case that we ourselves could be a simulation. There can be many other simulations, with different cosmic constants defining different universes. For instance, the probabilistic nature of particles is not evident because the Plank’s constant h, in our universe, is set to a very small value of 6.62607015×10^(-34) Js. If, for example, it became 1, the quantum uncertainty would be observable in the macroscopic world as well. Such a universe would be very different from our own.

If humanity is a simulation,what about our creators? Are they a simulation of some other base-reality, or is there an unending regress of simulated ancestors? Another question might be “what” may be our creators? Are they non-human AGI, aliens or humans themselves? Where are they? Are they from another dimension?

Well, if we are created, the certainty is that the creators have an immense computational power among them. They have leveraged their own techniques in optimization and augmentation just like we are continuing to do in fields like virtual environments. Our virtual environments are based on the “pixel” as the “quantum element”. Everything we see in our virtual worlds, is a combination of pixels. Higher the number of pixels and richer the interactions among the pixels, the more immersed we feel. Our virtual worlds, for instance games, do not permit going beyond the maps. We construct the virtual world within boundaries. The simulators also may have adhered to the same principles — not allowing us to reach certain arenas of the universe, imposing a speed limit, and some other universal constants. We may lead ourselves to our doom if we try to go beyond what’s reachable.

So, with the simulation hypothesis, are we going back to where we started centuries back — to creationism? Going against the theistic beliefs of creationist nature is what started the scientific revolution in the first place. But through scientific pursuits, are we converging to the same point of a Grand Creator? As we’ve mentioned above, the simulation hypothesis is only a possibility. It cannot be proven wrong, just as the existence of a Grand Creator (Russel’s Teapot). We’ll take it only as a possibility.

Software Engineer, CSE Graduate @ University of Moratuwa