Image: "Final Flight of the Osiris"
Warner Bros.
A crew member of the Osiris hovercraft is surrounded by monitors in an animated film based on "The Matrix." The "Matrix" film series suggested that our everyday experience is basically a computer simulation. Researchers are now proposing a way to test that way-out hypothesis.
By Contributor
Inside Science News Service
updated 12/17/2012 10:34:49 PM ET 2012-12-18T03:34:49

What if everything — all of us, the world, the universe — was not real? What if everything we are, know and do was really just someone's computer simulation?

The notion that our reality was some kid on a couch in the far future playing with a computer game like a gigantic Sim City, or Civilization, and we are the player's characters, isn't new. But some physicists now think they know of a way to test the concept. Three of them propose to test reality by simulating the simulators.

Martin Savage, professor of physics at the University of Washington, Zohreh Davoudi, one of his graduate students, and Silas Beane of the University of New Hampshire would like to see whether they can find traces of simulation in cosmic rays. The work was uploaded in arXiv, an online archive for drafts of academic research papers.

The notion that reality is something other than we think it is goes far back in philosophy, including Plato and his Parable of the Cave, which claimed reality was merely shadows of real objects on a cave wall. Sixteenth-century philosopher-mathematician René Descartes thought he proved reality with his famous "I think, therefore I am," which proposed that he was real and his thoughts had a reality.

Then, in 2003, a British philosopher, Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford, published a paper that had the philosophy and computer science departments buzzing.

The Matrix hypothesis
Bostrom suggested three possibilities: "The chances that a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small," "almost no technologically mature civilizations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours,” or we are "almost certainly" a simulation.

All three could be equally possible, he wrote, but if the first two are false, the third must be true. "There will be an astronomically huge number of simulated minds like ours," Bostrom wrote.

His suggestion was that our descendants, far in the future, would have the computer capacity to run simulations that complex, and that there might be millions of simulations, and millions of virtual universes with billions of simulated brains in them.

Bostrom's paper came out four years after the popular film, "The Matrix," in which humans discover they were simulations run by malevolent machines. The popularity of the film possibly contributed to the attention to Bostrom’s paper received at the time, but nothing came of it.

"He put it together in clear terms and came out with probabilities of what is likely and what is not," Savage said. "He crystallized it, at least in my mind."

Looking for anomalies
In the movie and in Savage's proposal, the discovery that reality was virtual came when unexpected errors showed up in life, demonstrating imperfections in the simulation.

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Savage and his colleagues assume that any future simulators would use some of the same techniques current scientists use to run simulations, with the same constraints. The future simulators, Savage indicated, would map their universe on a mathematical lattice or grid, consisting of points and lines. This would not be an everyday grid but a "hypercube" consisting of four dimensions, three for space, and one to represent points in time.

A present-day example is lattice quantum chromodynamics, which explores the effects of the strong nuclear force, one of the four fundamental forces in the universe, on tiny elementary particles such as quarks and gluons. In this approach, the particles jump from point to point on a grid, without passing through the space between them. The simulations cause time to pass in a similar way, like the frames of film passing through a movie camera, so that the time that passed between frames is not part of the simulation. This style of simulation requires less computer power than treating space and time as a continuum.

Because Savage and his colleague assume that future simulators will use a similar approach, he suggests looking at the behavior of very high-energy cosmic ray particles to see whether there is a grid in the energy as a start.

"You look at the very highest-energy cosmic rays and look for distributions that have symmetry problems, which are not isotropic," or the same in every direction, he said.

"Everything looks like it is on a continuum,” Savage said. "There is no evidence to show that is not the case at the moment. We are looking for something to indicate you don't have a space-time continuum."

Disturbance in the force
That disturbance in the force might be a hint that something in reality is amiss. If the cosmic ray energy levels travel along the grid, like following streets in Manhattan or Salt Lake City, it probably is unlikely to be a simulation; if they unexpectedly travel diagonally, reality may be a computer program.

Jim Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota who was not involved in the paper, said a test such as the one Savage suggests may not prove anything. If they don't find the signatures, it doesn't mean we are not a simulation; our descendants could have used a different grid. If they do find something it also could mean “that's the way space-time is and we never noticed before,” he said.

Two other questions arise. One is whether it is conceivable that computers powerful enough to simulate our hugely complex universe ever will exist. If so, it likely will be very far in the future.

The second question is linked: Will it ever be possible to simulate human consciousness? After all, we run around thinking and feeling.

"Ultimately, the paper glides over the most interesting point: assume we have infinite computing power and we can create this hypercube," Kakalios said. "They assume [the simulators] would know how to simulate human consciousness."

We are aware of ourselves, he said, aware of our bodies, aware of what is outside of our bodies, he said. Human consciousness is almost indescribably complex.

For generations, science-fiction books — and some science books — have hypothesized inserting our consciousness into computers so that we essentially live forever. In "Caprica," a prequel to the television program "Battlestar Galactica," a girl's consciousness is preserved in a computer — and it becomes the basis for the evil cyborgs.

"We don't understand consciousness,” Kakalios said. "Neuroscience is where physics was before quantum mechanics. It's a more interesting problem than whether you can simulate protons and quarks."

Either way, however, Kakalios said the experiments on cosmic rays are the kinds of projects scientists should be doing, regardless of the simulation issue.

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. He is the author of nine books on science and the history of science, and has taught science journalism at Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

This report was originally published Dec. 14 by Inside Science News Service as "What If Reality Was Really Just Sim Universe?"

Explainer: The 2012 Weird Science Awards

  • Our annual Weird Science Awards pay tribute to the strangest scientific tales of the past year, and you just know the 2012 edition had to be a doozy. While we're waiting for the Maya apocalypse — and we may be waiting a long, long time — let's count down the top 10 Weird Science stories, as determined by an ironically unscientific Live Poll.

    No. 10 is the discovery that having a painful need to urinate can impair your judgment. "When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can't stand it anymore, it was like being drunk," says Brown University neurologist Peter Snyder. "The ability to hold information was really impaired." To say nothing of the ability to hold water.

    The research won Snyder and his colleagues a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes, which honor science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think. Watch Snyder explain the study in this YouTube video, then click the "Next" button for more laugh-provoking science — or scroll quickly all the way down to the bottom if you have a painful need to go.

    — Alan Boyle, msnbc.com science editor

  • 9. Flies hooked on meth ... and sugar

    Image: Fruit fly
    Botaurus via Univ. of Illinois
    Researchers have found that the fruit fly is a useful model organism for studying the whole-body effects of methamphetamine exposure.

    When researchers noticed that meth addicts often take in large amounts of sugary drinks, they decided to do a little experiment: First, they got fruit flies hooked on methamphetamine. Then the scientists fed some of the flies a diet heavy on trehalose, an insect blood sugar. They found that the sugar-gobbling flies outlived the flies who didn't get the sweet stuff. Maybe sugar metabolism plays a role in meth's toxic effects. "Hopefully, some of these insights might lead to opportunities to deal with the problems associated with the drug," says University of Illinois toxicologist Barry Pittendrigh. But more research is required to trace the effects on mammals. In the meantime, watch out for those meth-head fruit flies.

  • 8. Monster pictures make a splash

    Courtesy of Discovery News
    A photo from a video that claims to show Alaska's own version of a sea monster.

    2011 saw a double-header (so to speak) in the marine-monster category. The most popular Loch Ness monster-like picture came from Alaska, where Andy Hillstrand of the "Deadliest Catch" TV show captured the footage for the Discovery Channel. Some might suggest that the creature is an eel, or a fish, or even a trick of light on the water. Not Hillstrand. "I've never seen anything like it," he told Discovery News. He suspects that the picture shows a Cadborosaurus, a legendary beast that has long been said to frequent Alaska's waters. Meanwhile, another picture purporting to show a creature that's been nicknamed "Bownessie" made waves in England.

  • 7. Glowing dog has an on-off switch

    Image: Glow-in-the-dark paw
    Lee et al. / Genesis
    Photos demonstrate the inducible glow-in-the-dark effect in a genetically modified dog: The left images shows the dog's paw in normal light (upper left) and under ultraviolet light (lower left) after doxycycline is added to the dog's food. The right-hand images show the dog's paw in normal and ultraviolet light after scientists stopped administering the drug.

    In past years, our Weird Science Award winners have included glow-in-the-dark kitties and glow-in-the-dark puppies. How could scientists possibly top that? Would you believe a dog with a gene that turns the fluorescence under UV light on or off, depending on whether a particular drug is added to its food? That's exactly the kind of dog that South Korean scientists produced in 2011. Why, you ask? Well, the ultimate aim of these glow-in-the-dark exercises is to splice in genes that can help treat diseases — and having an on-off switch would give physicians more control over the treatment. That feat would make other researchers turn green ... with envy.

  • 6. Just this once, Samoa skips a Friday

    Image: (FILE PHOTO) Samoa Cancels December 30th As Islands Skip Over The International Dateline
    Hannah Johnston  /  Getty Images
    Samoa and New Zealand-administered Tokelau skip a day as they jump over the international date line in an attempt to improve trade and tourism.

    For more than a century, Samoa was on one side of the International Date Line, and Australia and New Zealand were on the other. When the Samoans were at Sunday church, the Aussies were starting their business week on Monday. And when Samoa was trying to finish up its own business week, the Kiwis were settling into the weekend. To remedy that, the Samoans switched over to the Australia-New Zealand side in 2011, going directly from Thursday, Dec. 29, to Saturday, Dec. 31. To top it all off, workers were paid for the non-existent Friday. If only we could all get to the weekend that quickly ... and spend it on a tropical island.

  • 5. Pole shift forces airport makeover

    Might as well face reality: Shift happens. Earth's shifting magnetic poles are not a sign of the apocalypse. They're just a fact of life on our dynamic planet. We do have to cope to the shift that life throws at us, though. For example, in early 2011, Tampa's airport had to repaint the numbers on its runways to reflect their shifting orientation with respect to magnetic north. The good news is that even dramatic changes in the poles' position would have no effect on life on Earth, despite what the doomsday prophets say.

  • 4. Corpse-dissolving machine invented

    "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Does that old saying apply to building a better corpse-dissolving machine as well? Resomation Ltd. hopes so. The Scottish company installed its machine in a St. Petersburg, Fla., funeral home and hopes the system will be legalized in other jurisdictions. The alkaline hydrolysis unit liquefies a body's soft tissues and flushes the sterile liquid into the municipal water system. The bones and other hard parts are left behind to be crushed. Company founder Sandy Sullivan says the machine lets people express their environmental concerns "in a very positive and I think personal way." Sounds good, as long as they don't put a Soylent Green factory next door.

  • 3. Preacher gets doomsday wrong ... twice!

    First, figure out exactly when Noah's Ark was floated by the Flood, and exactly when Jesus was crucified. Then come up with an arcane biblical numerology to add 7,000 years to the former, and 722,500 days to the latter. That was California preacher Harold Camping's formula for determining that May 21 was the date for the beginning of an apocalyptic Rapture. When May 21 didn't work out, he said Oct. 21 was the fallback date for the end of the world. And when that didn't work out ... well, now Camping says he's rethinking this whole doomsday business. But what about the 2012 apocalypse? That's too kooky, even for Camping. "Mr. Camping does not believe the Mayan calendar holds any significance at all," a spokeswoman says. Camping's mathematical acumen earned him a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes.

  • 2. 'Aflockalypse' is for the birds

    Image: A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas,
    Warren Watkins/The Daily Citizen  /  EPA
    A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas.

    The year 2011 was rung in with a series of reports about mass die-offs, involving blackbirds (the so-called "Aflockalypse" in Arkansas), fish, crabs and other creatures. Some wondered whether a global environmental crisis was in the offing, but experts said the Aflockalypse was simply a case of people connecting the dots between unrelated events, facilitated by global communication systems. Die-offs can happen for a variety of reasons. The Arkansas blackbird deaths, for example, took place after the birds were spooked by New Year's Eve fireworks. And wouldn't you know it? The Aflockalypse happened again to kick off 2012.

  • 1. Fungus turns ants into zombies

    David P. Hughes
    A dead ant, after being zombified by a species of parasitic fungus. The brain-controlling fungus turns ants into zombies that do the parasite's bidding before it kills them.

    If books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and video games like "Resident Evil" can generate billions of dollars in sales, it shouldn't be surprising that the top Weird Science honors go to a story about zombie ants being taken over by a brain-controlling fungus. The fungus apparently uses temperature cues to decide when to have the ant clamp down on a cool leaf with a death grip. Pennsylvania State University's David Hughes speculates that the fungus does its thing to ensure it "has a long cool night ahead of it, during which time it can literally burst out of the ant's head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk." It's the perfect plot for a horror movie directed by one mean mother: Mother Nature.

  • Honorable (?) mention

    Other weird tales that almost made the top 10:

    Does 13th zodiac sign mean your horoscope is wrong?
    Was the Shroud of Turin created in a blinding flash?
    Science reveals how to win at 'Rock, Paper, Scissors'

    Previous Weird Science winners:

    Cricket testicles and 2011's other Weirdies
    Kinky fruit bats and other Weirdies from 2010
    2,700-year-old marijuana and other 2009 Weirdies
    Glow-in-the-dark kitties and other Weirdies from 2008

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