How AI Could Prove We Live in a Computer Simulation

Are we just players in a game?

Key Takeaways

  • New research could give more weight to the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation. 
  • Princeton University physicist Hong Qin’s research shows how a simulated universe’s technology could work in practice, experts say. 
  • Not everyone agrees that Qin’s research strengthens the case for simulation theory.
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New research into machine algorithms is fueling the hypothesis that our reality may actually be a computer simulation. 

A recently developed algorithm can predict planetary orbits without having to be told about Newton’s laws, according to a recent paper by Princeton University physicist Hong Qin. Qin’s research shows how the technology of a simulated universe could work in practice, experts say. 

"If an AI algorithm is able to predict the motion of planets, for example, using discrete field theory, this suggests that the universe, itself, may consist at some level of discrete elements—if you will, that the universe is pixelated," computer scientist Rizwan Virk, the author of "The Simulation Hypothesis," who was not involved in the research, said in an email interview. 

Orbits Predicted Without Newton’s Laws

Qin created a computer program into which he fed data from past observations of the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and the dwarf planet Ceres.

This program then made accurate predictions of the orbits of other planets in the solar system without using Newton’s motion and gravitation laws.

"Essentially, I bypassed all the fundamental ingredients of physics. I go directly from data to data," Qin said in a news release. "There is no law of physics in the middle."

“It might make your head spin a little to consider that nothing around you would be physical.”

Qin’s work was inspired by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s philosophical thought experiment that the universe is a computer simulation.

If that were true, Bostrom argues, the fundamental physical laws should reveal that the universe consists of individual chunks of space-time, like pixels in a video game. 

"If we live in a simulation, our world has to be discrete," Qin said in the news release. 

The technique Qin devised does not require that physicists believe the simulation conjecture literally, though it builds on this idea to create a program that makes accurate physical predictions.

Simulation Theory in a Nutshell

The idea that we might be living in a simulation first gained ground in 2003 in Bostrom’s proposal of a trilemma that he called "the simulation argument." He argues that one of three unlikely seeming propositions almost certainly is true:

  • "The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero."
  • "The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running simulations of their evolutionary history, or variations thereof, is very close to zero."
  • "The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one."

Not everyone agrees that Qin’s research strengthens the case for simulation theory. 

"The only meaningful way to affect that would be to have either direct evidence that we are in a simulation (which is crucially distinct from saying the universe is computational/discrete in nature)," David Kipping, an astronomer at Columbia University, said in an email interview.

Someone using a table with an overlay of a virtual visual screen at night.
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"Or the clear demonstration that we can ourselves simulate conscious, self-aware, intelligent beings on a computer." 

If the simulation theory is correct, how worried should we be? Virk says that it depends on whether we are living in a simulation. That's whether we are living in a role-playing game (RPG) or are Non-Player Characters (NPC). 

"In the RPG version, we are players existing outside the game, who are playing characters in the game, and we are trying to level up by overcoming difficulties," he added.

"In the NPC version, we are all AI, and the simulators are watching what we do for some unknown purposes. In any case, if we view this world as full of obstacles for us on purpose, we can take things in stride easier and see everything as a challenge."

Kipping said that, if we do live in a simulation, it might not affect our daily lives. "But it might make your head spin a little to consider that nothing around you would be physical," he added.

"And it permits some unsettling scenarios—such that you may have only come to existence a few seconds ago pre-programmed with your memories."

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