The science and logic of the simulation theory behind Matrix type novels.
Ever since the Wachowski brothers’ film, “The Matrix” and the nearly contemporary albeit wildly less-successful flick “The 13th Floor”, the idea of us living in a simulated replica of reality run by a megacomputer has become a big hit. In this article I wish to examine the underlying science of the question in order to lay down the fundamentals needed to write a scientifically sound sci-fi plot revolving around the concept of simulated reality.
Are we in one?
I was born in a world which still had black and white cathode screens, I grew up with text-based computer interfaces, a keyboard and dial-up phone data transfer. My children were born in a world with flat LCD touchscreens and worldwide wireless networking. The tech I’m writing this article with now will be ridiculously obsolete by the time my grandchildren are ten. This points to the obvious fact that technology is accelerating at an astounding pace. Some scientists foresee a moment in which man and machine will be integrated and we will sacrifice biology in exchange for eternal virtuality.
If we accept that possibility, and we accept that, in order to defeat death and continue pursuing human-oriented lives, we will place ourselves in a simulated world which replicates the natural world, then – and there is no soft way to put this – let the brain-torque begin:
Are we in the real world, approaching the moment when we will all retire to a simulation, or has it already happened? It’s impossible for us to know. Why?
You can’t see the box, if you’re inside the box.
The main objective of a simulation is to seem real, and those living within it must not know they are in artificially generated world. in much the same way that the characters of a book are not aware they are just words on paper. We are not allowed to break the code because that is what we are made of. Any scientist analyzing the physical world of the simulation would find results which simulate those of the real world. In other words, simulated microscopes will prove the existence of cells, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, because that is what they are programmed to simulate.
In other words, any instrument we may use to detect the simulation is also a simulation.
You are programmed not to see the glitches.
Imagine Super Mario suddenly looking at his hand and realizing to his horror that he is made of big chunky pixels. “Mamma Mia!” he would exclaim. Luckily, however, that never happens in the game, because Mario’s program does not allow him to. The information given to the character in the simulation is the only reality that the character’s brain can accept. In other words, for Super Mario it is perfectly normal for everything to be made of pixels because that’s what reality is, the same way we accept everything to be made of atoms. What happens if there’s a glitch? Well, the simulation might just overwrite it, together with your memory of it happening, or it might just freeze and wait an indefinite time for a technician to come and fix the error, rewind the simulation by a few minutes and start it up again. We would never notice.
Writing about the Matrix.
A novel that deals with an impossible task would pe pretty boring, unless we come up with a couple loopholes to let our characters prove they’re inside a computer simulation.
First loophole: The Speed Limit.
No matter how advanced, a calculator is a sequence of instructions. The sequence of instructions produces effects along a simulated timeline, therefore, nothing in the simulation can happen faster than the processing speed. Assuming that in a natural, non-simulated universe, you can always split an instant into two half-instants, if your characters prove that there is a limit, then there’s the proof they were looking for. (Incidentally, scientists appear to have discovered Planck Time, which would appear to be the smallest possible fraction of time.)
Second loophole: Input from “outside”.
It is clear that I am comparing a fictional simulated universe generator to a desktop computer as an analogy. The thing capable of generating this virtual world could be a complex pattern made of pure energy or whatever your creative minds can come up with. But it’s still a calculator, and the desktop analogy sticks. Especially since there’s a good chance that there are some ways to input data from the outside. What if one of the characters found something in their world which responded to data coming from outside the simulation? An old book which rewrites itself, some subtly changing graffiti on a wall, an old cathode TV screen…
Third loophole: The Experiment.
In my short story “Doesn’t Matter”, a crazy physicist decides that this is, in fact, a simulation. To prove it he devises an experiment in which he taps into what he believes to be the source code of reality, and changes a variable. He carries out the experiment before a board of worried colleagues, but nothing appears to have changed. Later in the evening, the scientist’s assistant realizes that now all clocks strike thirteen at midnight.
Fourth loophole: The Glitch.
I know I just wrote that glitches are overwritten and memories wiped. But what if one wasn’t? A small, unnoticed error in the programming, and it goes unnoticed by the system because it is inside the main character? Maybe it is the result of a more serious error and the character keeps getting flagged for the error and rebooted, until they begin to realize what is happening. If we accept the premise that we ourselves will create the system that will house our digital consciousnesses, then it will not be allowed to delete the character, unless their glitch becomes a threat to others. Would the system resort to the ultimate solution: extraction?
Can you think of any other loophole to let your characters prove they exist in a simulation? I woud love to hear about it. Please write about it in the comments below.