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Inside the matrix

Posted 21/12/2012 by sevans

As an avid science fiction fan, I have always been interested in alternative worlds, but especially where those worlds have been based on an assumption that everything is real. I was encouraged in that interest when I read about the assumption that everyone saw the same green when they looked at grass. Other research that interested me was that actually what humans ‘see’ is actually a construct in their own brains. So if the brain can simulate the world we see, then what is ‘real’?

Over a decade ago British philosopher Nick Bostrom, at the University of Oxford, hypothesised that the universe we live in might in fact be a simulation run by our descendants (Philosophical Quarterly, 2003, 53, (211), 243). Bostrom argued that at least one of three possibilities is true:

That humans are likely to become extinct before reaching a so-called post-human stage;

That any ‘post-human civilisation is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history; and

That we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Furthermore, he suggested that ‘the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become post-humans who run ancestor simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation’.

This thought has been pursued by science fiction writers and filmmakers for many years, in such films as The Matrix, and its follow-ups, which supposed that ‘reality’ can be supplied directly to human minds, and more recently, Inception, which was all about the workings of our inner mind and how it might be influenced.

I was struck therefore by recent research undertaken at the University of Washington’s Institute for Nuclear Theory and the University of New Hampshire in the US that has resulted in a conclusion that a potential test to determine whether we are living in a simulation could be available now or in the near future.

The test would of course involve the use of supercomputers  and a technique called lattice quantum chromodynamics – a science fiction construct if ever there was one! The technique divides space-time into a four-dimensional grid, which allows researchers to examine the so-called strong force, described as one of the four fundamental forces of nature. The strong force binds subatomic particles, such as quarks and gluons, together into neutrons and protons in the nucleus of atoms. 

And if these atomic sized simulations are made big enough then the researchers believe something like a simulation of the universe should emerge. They could then look for what they call a signature in the universe that has an analogue in the small-scale simulations that they are looking at today. They have suggested that this signature could appear as a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays. The rays with the highest energy would not travel along the edges of the lattice but diagonally, and would not interact equally in all directions (arXiv:1210.1847v2).

So with that thought, to coin another science fiction phrase: ‘May the force be with you!’

Have a great holiday season – the blog will return in 2013 – unless the Mayans have been right all the way along!

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    08/01/2013 12:43

    This is so captivating. Thanks for sharing.