Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.
So what will we do when our intelligence is in the range of a googol (10¹ºº) calculations per second? One thing we may do is to engineer new universes. Similarly, our universe may be the creation of some superintelligences in another universe. In this case, there was an intelligent designer of our universe—that designer would be the evolved intelligence of some other universe that created ours.
I believe our universe exists inside a machine, a supercomputer running a simulation that is so complex that it will take us several centuries before creating it ourselves.
As a consequence reality is a projection of our consciousness, as in Eastern philosophies or as in Berkeley. Nothing exists if not observed, or better it exists as potential until it is calculated into existence by interacting with us. Time travel is technically possible, and so instantly reaching every corner of the universe and beyond. Those who created us live in a dimension above us within a universe that is basically a Russian doll containing ours. I suspect they wonder, like we do, who created them…
While I cannot prove this idea to be true it’s interesting to notice how, differently from any other idea of “god” humanity ever developed, this one could potentially be investigated by science. I have no idea how we could do that, I am just an obscure Italian artist. The source of my belief is a satori experience I had back in 2005, so it was not the fruit of an intellectual process. Later, to my delight, I discovered that many minds brighter than mine came to the same conclusion.
The hypothesis of the universe being a digital computer is nothing new. It was pioneered in 1967 by Konrad Zuse, the man who built the world’s first programmable computer. By doing more research I became familiar with terms like digital physics, computational universe, pancomputationalism, simulation hypothesis. There is an ongoing debate, and there are already people looking for experimental confirmation. While I am not qualified to be part of this debate I hope I can contribute here with some inspiration.
I do not expect to be believed, but I hope that realizing that you cannot prove this idea to be false can open space for doubt.
One thing we may all agree on is that humans will try to build increasingly complex universe simulations. As a matter of fact, we are already working on them.
Let’s assume that in a not too distant future the idea that we all live inside a simulation becomes mainstream (as I believe it will) because some strong evidence is found. How would that change our culture? Not easy to predict, but its impact is likely not going to be inferior to Darwin’s.
The philosophical consequences are many. Some I have already mentioned, I’d like to suggest these additional four:
- There is an intelligent creator and it might be technically possible for us to get in touch with this fellow, who in a way we can consider our god even though he/she/it is likely to have a creator as well. The mystery of the ultimate source remains unsolved but we would finally have an answer to the existential question that has been with us since the dawn of ages: who are we and where do we come from.
- Humanity has a common purpose: to build that machine. As mentioned we are already building universe and life simulators but we must reach a level in which complex forms of life can arise from the system, including creatures made in our likeness who like us can develop self-awareness and the illusion to be separated from the rest.
- We are all in the same humble boat, all brothers and sisters united by the same destiny. Racism and all other isms and making war to each other are plain foolish (many people think this way also today, but such an eye-opener about our nature should reinforce the concept).
- We are pieces of code written in a language that is way beyond our words and dualistic thinking. As a consequence, the importance we give to words should decrease. Giving too much importance to words has caused so much death and suffering throughout history… Broadening our perspective should help us doing ourselves less harm. In the future people who give too much importance to words may appear as primitive as we would today consider primitive a peasant from the middle ages doing the craziest things out of foolish superstitions.
This machine in practice would be for us a huge scientific experiment. I like to imagine it, using some fantasy and irony, to be regulated by principles like the following:
- Our primary purpose is to study how the universe, life, evolution, and civilizations work. We should operate as a silent god, avoiding to interfere as much as possible with the little creatures living inside the machine, observing how they behave, watching them as they commit our same stupid mistakes.
- When needed, if a civilization is stagnant it’s ok (upon approval) to divinely intervene to give it a boost. Acts of compassion or other minor interventions like prank calls can be tolerated. We are god, after all, and being completely powerless would lower the morale of our team (we would tend to develop empathy for those little creatures and their stories). What is critical is to not let the little creatures discover that we exist. We want them to feel our presence but we must be careful not to leave too many traces of our work. We don’t want to take the risk that those simple minds start to kill each other in our name. Apart from slowing down their progress, it can even threaten their survival. Plus, to some of our researchers, witnessing all that suffering could cause depression and we like to take care of our employees.
- Those little creatures need to figure it out by themselves that we exist. When they do it, they will be ripe to start building a universe inside a machine themselves which is crucial for our experiment. We must let them do it their way, without interfering as there is a lot we can learn from their work. The way they engineer the communication between the dimension above and the one below may enable us to find a way to establish a two-way communication, as to say to get in touch with our creators.
- Once a civilization inside the machine reaches our level of intelligence we can finally come out of the closet, start to have relations, collaborate with the little creatures, maybe bring up from the dimension below to visit our world some remarkable specimen by installing their consciousness into one of our robots (yes, it should be technically possible). Civilizations inside the machine have more potential than ours as we can accelerate their time and make thousands of their years pass in one second. In a way, we are breeding geniuses and innovators from whom we can learn a lot.
Well, it may not happen exactly in these terms, plus creating complex and sentient life inside a computer will take many centuries (if not millennia). Imagining a very distant future is a slippery exercise that posterity tends to enjoy mostly for the amusement and laughter it provides…
I hope I managed anyway to give you a hint of how radical the impact of this new thought can be on our culture. If more people start to get intrigued by it and put their minds on it, some strong argument supporting the computational universe theory may arise during this century.
Part of my artistic mission is to accelerate the coming of this awareness, which I consider crucial for our species’ destiny. The 9th of my Ten Commandments for the Digital Millennium is about it.
My goal is not to convince people but to inspire people, especially the young, bright, and hopeful. I am an artist, I bring with me the wind of the changing times. For those who want to breathe it.
UPDATE: On June 2nd 2016 Elon Musk publicly declared that there is ‘one in billions’ chance we are NOT living in a computer simulation. I am very happy to see one of the most influential figures of our time sharing my belief, this should raise its awareness and induce fewer people to consider me crazy 🙂
(This post was first published in 2015. This is a minor update for my new portal).
Image: Barabeke, Il fischio del tempo/The whistle of time (detail), BBK08F001