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Test Could Reveal Which Side of the Looking Glass We're On

By Peter Suciu
Dec 15, 2012 5:00 AM PT

For those who spend enough time playing World of Warcraft, the line between what is "real" and what isn't probably blurs from time to time. However, a far deeper and more philosophical question has been raised: whether life, the universe and everything is actually just a computer simulation.

Test Could Reveal Which Side of the Looking Glass We're On

The conical (red) surface shows the relationship between energy and momentum in special relativity, a fundamental theory concerning space and time developed by Albert Einstein, and is the expected result if our universe is not a simulation. The flat (blue) surface illustrates the relationship between energy and momentum that would be expected if the universe is a simulation with an underlying cubic lattice.
(Martin Savage)

The center of this theory is that any civilization that evolves to a "post-human" stage would in turn be capable of running a simulation on the scale of the universe. Given the size of the universe -- with its billions of worlds around billions of suns -- and its billions of years of existence, this could have happened.

If so, are we in it?

This concept, which has been the basis of such movies at The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, hasn't exactly been easy to prove or disprove.

However, researchers at the University of Washington, led by Martin Savage, Ph.D., have concluded that there could be a test to determine if the world is just a simulation.

Sim Universe?

The basis of the test that Savage has theorized is itself rather complicated. It suggests that if we are in a simulation, then that simulation would have to have been constructed with the same finite resources that we could use to create such a simulation. In other words, we could see the shortcomings a programmer made.

For example, this could include the behavior of ultra high energy cosmic rays to determine if there is a set of preferred direction. This in itself wouldn't actually prove that the universe is a simulation, but it would be the sort of thing that would be in a simulation.

To understand this further requires a bit of understanding the mechanics of the universe.

"We believe we live in a quantum universe," said James Canton, Ph.D., of the Institute for Global Futures. "We are only now taking the baby steps to prove it."

As for looking for those patterns that Savage would seek out, they would be there in the mechanics.

"There are some constants in the universe," Canton told TechNewsWorld. "All matter, everything you can see, is the smallest part of the cosmos. The largest part, which we can't see, is the dark matter. But these are still constants."

High-Tech Creationism?

While this concept of a simulated universe is often compared to the dystopian film series The Matrix, a more apt comparison might be another film that came out at the same time. Now largely forgotten, The Thirteen Floor speculated that simulated worlds could be created, and those within it didn't even know they were just simulations.

So while video games have created believable worlds, those bad guys and other characters are just scripted and don't really exist. Could the next step be imbuing them with some sort of self-awareness, but not giving those characters the ability to know they are in a simulation? And if that is possible, does it then make the theory that we are in a game all the more possible?

"It seems quite unlikely that we exist as virtual beings living within a computer simulation being operated by some future species descendants," said Glen Hiemstra of Futurist.com. "However, at the same time I do accept the proposition that the day will come when computer/AI entities will be intelligent enough to be self-aware by some definitions.

"If that is true, then of course we might in fact be those computer/AI entities," Hiemstra told TechNewsWorld.

There are fundamental questions that would remain, even if Savage's theory is upheld -- that is, that preferred direction could suggest the universe is a simulation. However, other questions might be answered.

"Many mysteries become more sensible, such as where our energy goes when we die, or the idea that we may live many lives," added Hiemstra. "Other mysteries remain, such as why our simulated universe still shows no clear evidence of other intelligent beings, when putting them into a simulation would make the simulation more entertaining."

From Games to Reality

Whether this universe is a simulation isn't easily answered, but could technology create a simulation that would be indistinguishable from reality? Today the most immersing experience is staring at a computer screen, but technology is moving quite quickly.

"We haven't ported emotion and feeling, but that is a cognitive step. That will come," he said.

"Big data and cloud computing will allow this immersive universe to be created," Canton predicted. "We didn't even have the bandwidth until recently. But and now there is more technology that exists in a single laptop than was available throughout the world in 1974."

Whether that laptop -- or world -- actually exists is still to be proven.

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What do you think of today's voice recognition technology?
It's great -- the tech has improved vastly in recent years.
It's the wave of the future, but quality is still hit or miss.
I like it for texting, especially when I'm driving.
I only use it when I have to, like with IVR systems.
I avoid using it, because most voice systems are still terrible.
It's an unnecessary frill that I can easily live without.