What are Ancestor Simulations... and are we living in one?
This episode is brought to you by Brilliant! There’s a lot of discussion about if we are real or merely in someone’s simulation or dream, but what if we are real, we just died centuries ago and keep getting resurrected over and over again? Some call it the Simulation Argument, some the Simulation Hypothesis, and it’s a concept that in many ways predates the computer age, but fundamentally comes down to asking if we are living in a dream or computer program, or fundamentally, if we are real. Today, we will be looking at the specific case of Ancestor Simulations, and indeed this is the actual case for computer simulation discussion but that tends to get left out of most discussions, and in my opinion is a lot of why the topic is both controversial and confusing to folks. I want to start from the outset, since this topic tends to draw some reckless talk and clickbait, that I’m not going to prove to you today that you are or are not in a simulation, it is not something that you can easily prove either way, and it is a real possibility but nothing approaching a certainty or likelihood that we’re in a simulation. We will want to explain why today and also how concepts like ancestor simulations are distinct from classic notions of us living in a dream. The basic notion is hard to credit to anyone and
indeed the idea we’re in a dream, probably dates back to the dawn of humanity – or to whenever the dreamer started dreaming. However it was philosopher Nick Bostrom who developed the formal argument a generation back, and it is very specific to the case of Ancestor Simulations, we’ll detail those more in a bit but summary form is: Its where a civilization, centuries ahead of us currently, likes to runs simulations of its actual past, or also very parallel ‘what if’ scenarios. That’s very important to the concept as we’ll see. Now by default, folks discussing Simulation Argument, tend to just mean any simulation or virtual world with people like ourselves in them, but that does not fit the case. We’re not really talking about if some person or persons with access to vast computing power, built tons of virtual universes below them, of any traits and style they wanted, and that case is really no different than notions such as black hole mini-universes: the idea that every time a black hole forms, a new universe is big-banging out somewhere.
These aren’t really discussing that you might be in a fake Universe, in the sense of mimicking a prior period of your own civilization, it's simply saying that Universes can spawn children, by nature or intelligent action, assembled underneath high levels like a family tree, and the flavor is more like a child-universe or sub-verse rather than more aquarium-reality flavor that simulated civilizations often seem to have, existing for entertainment or research, living in a fishbowl. There are other reasons you might do an ancestor simulation besides those, but there’s an almost unlimited number of reasons to make sub-verses and these in generic format can’t tell you much about the simulator. See, if I simulate the 19th Century Earth, those living inside that simulation speculating on if they’re real, will be in a Universe with the same physical laws and culture of our 19th century, and from which our 21st century existence is derived. So they can
usefully speculate about us and our motives. On the other hand a person might simulate a Universe utterly different in physics and geometry from our own, and by that same reasoning, if our universe is simulated, but not an ancestor simulation, the simulators might not be using ‘computers’, because they might come from a Universe which has no atoms, where gravity is a billion times stronger, where there’s 5-dimensions and neutrinos mass as much as neutron stars, and where concepts like entropy and thermodynamic limits simply don’t apply. Indeed even the laws of mathematics might differ. Now, mind you, some rough sketch of a fantasy world on a piece of paper can be argued to be a simulated universe itself, and those can often grow in complexity, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or countless other fictional settings, and those details in those fictional settings actually do tell us a lot about humanity and the author and the world they live in, but mostly only make sense as clues when we already know the details of that Universe. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which could be argued to be an ancestor simulation since it’s supposed to be set in the distant past of our own world, implies a lot of normal physics, gravity and chemistry and so on, but rarely gives any detail. At no point in the story did Frodo or Bilbo announce how fast an object falls in terms of local gravity or that they’re breathing oxygen.
And indeed, that setting, like so many fictional ones, has some hard breaks with science. Middle Earth has had periods without a Sun, in favor of glowing trees or gemstones, or where it was Flat, before Numenor sank. Now these worlds are not simulated to the degree requiring consciousness by the characters in them, presumably, and ours, if it is simulated, does. It is possible that we’re really simple compared to the unfathomable supermind that built our simulation, but nonetheless, we’re conscious, or at least I am, and you presumably can be confident you are too. Cogito, Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am, as Descartes put it, though the
assertion is not that we are real, merely that you cannot usefully doubt your own existence, since someone would have to be doing that doubting. So the Simulation Argument starts with saying that, either it is possible to simulate a previous age of your world, complete with simulated minds that could think they were real, or it is not, then, it says that if it is possible, we must ask if future civilizations would do it or not, and if so, how often? The basic reasoning that folks often cite for giving a probability of our real-ness or not, is to use the Principle of Indifference. This is the philosophical or mathematical notion that in the absence of any evidence pointing one way or another, you should assume your various solutions or outcomes are equally likely. As a quick example, if you run along a corridor, chasing someone and lose sight of them, then come to a room at the end with three closed doors, you have to initially assume each option is equally likely as the way they fled, a 1 in 3 or 33.33% chance the person you’re following took a particular door. If it was
actually three thousand people running down that corridor - at different times, so that you had no reason to think any of them were influencing each other’s choices - you’d be assuming about a thousand ran through each door. Now, in practice, you can often find some evidence; footprints, fingerprints or wear and tear on the door knobs would be examples. So too, we could speculate that right-handed folk might be more likely to use the right-hand door, or that they are painted red, green, and blue and folks tended to be more likely to go through the green door and least likely to go through the red. Also we have to consider that we’re focusing on the doors to exclusion, and ignoring options like them having fled through an air duct, hidden in a corner or hanging from the ceiling, or possessed an unexpected ability, like turning invisible or teleporting. And especially when dealing with intelligent actors, you need to contemplate them intentionally acting atypically. Nonetheless, that’s the idea behind the principle
of indifference, and it’s a solid one, when presented with 2 or more plausible outcomes and without any real evidence indicating which is more or less likely, we assume they are all about the same until we can demonstrate otherwise, and emphasis on this being a working assumption. In a moment, I’ll declare that the odds of you living in an ancestor simulation are 33% and that is going to be based on the principle of indifference. That number is not likely to be the real odds, merely that those are the hypothetical odds given to make this point.
Indeed, technically, there are no odds, you either do or do not exist in one, but where we’re trying to get the odds, the fact that something can be assumed to be one-in-three because we simply have no evidence to the contrary, is not a compelling argument of any kind. I felt like that needed saying upfront, because a lot of folks get some existential terror at the idea of being in a simulation and folks often talk about what the odds are as though we had actual evidence rather than a probabilistic argument. In and of itself the basic argument for the simulation hypothesis is the same as saying there’s a 50/50 chance someone I meet is a serial killer, because people either are or are not a serial killer, thus, by Principle of Indifference, anyone I meet has that 50% odds. That’s not the case,
and we have data indicating how likely people are to be Serial Killers and it's pretty rare. We could also set that up as saying we found a dead body and assumed it was either natural causes or murder, and if the latter, either it was done by someone who rarely murders people, or who does it a lot, three options: natural causes, murder by an amateur, or serial killer. In the absence of any other evidence we just say it’s 1 in 3, that’s the idea. Then we try to find more evidence to adjust those numbers to better represent reality, it's just kinda hard to do that when the question in mind is if we live in reality. Now for the Simulation Argument, there are three propositions, and those are that, it either is or is not possible - in a particular universe, with either the same, or different natural laws - to make ancestor simulations, and that if it is, civilizations either choose not to make ancestor simulations or they do and do it a lot.
Such being the case, it can be assumed that there’s a 1 in 3 chance that the third option is true, that ancestor simulations are possible and that civilizations opt to do them a lot; that once folks have the technology to emulate a mind or reality, they often replicate some period of their past, including various people who aren’t alive anymore – their ancestors, whom they are now simulating, and who believe they are real. The follow-up, is the idea that if we’re assuming proposition 3 is true, that civilizations who can simulate, do so frequently, then that means that actual civilization did once experience the year 2022, when this video airs, but they have also simulated many times, maybe millions of times. The folks in those simulations, who are fully emulated human minds, do not know they are in a fake copy or ‘what if’ scenario of the year 2022, like the one with where that war or market crash or disease variant did end up happening as opposed to being narrowly avoided. Or the simulation where nuclear war didn’t happen, for those who want to go vacation in their innocent youth, before the bombs landed and all the survivors were techno-barbarian cyborg mutants. And I do not know if I’m in the original or a copy, and if there’s 99 copies and 1 original, there’s only a 1% I’m in it. So in that
case, there’d be a 1 in 3, or 33.33% chance I was in a reality where ancestor simulation was common, and a 99% chance I was in such a sim, there’s an even 33% chance I’m a sim. Now this is not wrong, the logic applied is entirely proper and functional. It doesn’t
mean it's right either, and as an example, we can add more options by not being so binary. For instance, we could say that simulation might be physically possible but civilizations capable of doing it may be automatically prone to self-obliteration through some crazy AI running amok. Or that it's possible, but almost always a very brief phase leading to a few dozen simulated universes that are few in number or occupants, and get banned or unpopular almost right away. Either makes us have a fourth option and changes the reasoning, by Principle of Indifference, to 25%. This doesn’t somehow mean you’re actually more or less likely to be real and not a sim. What’s different about an ancestor simulation idea over classic: ‘life is a dream’ concepts? Or is there no difference? Well, there is a real difference, and I think folks miss that when discussing Bostrom’s concept, by assuming it’s merely a modern version of dream-existence. It is not computers that make the simulation argument different either, not exactly. That’s really just a substrate, the specific way the new reality is made, and when we’re talking about simulated realities in general, you can use the words Programmer and God interchangeably.
A Universe dreamed up by deity, like with Brahma of Hinduism, who sleeps and dreams our Universe, probably does not have a brain made of neurons, our brain’s substrate, anymore than silicon wafer chips, a computer or AI’s substrate. Which might also be made of other materials and in a simulating universe might be made of materials that don’t even exist in our simulated or dreamed reality. Again, the computer and programmer versus dreamer or deity part, is pretty semantic here. Instead, what’s relevant is the ancestor simulation notion itself, which speaks to motivation. A little bit ago we talked about how by Principle of Indifference there’s a 1 in 3 chance we’re in a simulated reality and the other two thirds were a Universe where simulating minds of our complexity, is simply not possible or was possible, but simply was not done. The problem though, is that that first clause is essentially a throw-away in modern context. We’ll be able to build computers big enough to emulate a human mind and more.
We probably already have supercomputers powerful enough and now it's more a coding issue, and a recording one, if we care about specific individuals. We could raise notions like: if a human – like you or I – could be emulated on a computer without losing some unknown mystic quality, but this then merely rephrases the idea that Heaven or Hell or the Fey Realm, or other such places are a different layer of reality, maybe a superior or older one even, but not implying the layer we’re in is somehow fake and us along with it. Though, for my own part, I don’t really see the difference between a person born in an ancestor simulation and another who was not, in terms of basic personhood. Obviously, if one of them did have a soul and the other did not, that’s a decent basis to challenge, if that soulless person is indeed a true person. However, since souls seem to be rather evasive at detection or description at the moment, it is not a topic we can usefully speak about, in a scientific context. This is why
I often say, on this topic, whether or not we are in a simulation, and thus real or unreal, is the wrong question to ask, the better one is if it actually matters. I am real, I am a person, show me I am in a simulation and I’ll just say the definition some use for reality needs adjusted. Nonetheless, that first point, that we can almost take for granted that simulating minds is possible, would raise our odds of being in a simulation to 50/50, since it’s saying we can and thus the question is just if we do or do not, in a few centuries or so when we get the technology perfected, which again might have been in our own past. Now we need another caveat, because emulating a mind to the point you and I have, is way beyond what is likely to be needed for realistic human portrayals in entertainment or education simulations. We have this leftover perspective from early science fiction days, that anything able to interact at the human level, needs something near human intelligence and consciousness. This is why we get humanoid robot butlers in books and films who can run a vacuum and wash dishes and have a heart to heart talk with people, and in practice we get a chatbot, a robot vacuum cleaner, and smart dishwasher, not some thing which might debatably be a person.
The simple reality is that if you want to go live in a virtual reality, killing orcs or rescuing damsels-in-distress from fire breathing dragons, none of them really need to be running a conscious mind, of human level, all the time – or probably ever – but certainly not when off screen. It’s like needing to be able to read a book for five minutes and thus building an entire sun to read by, that lives for a billion years and shines over a billion square kilometers of real estate. It’s just pointless waste, and I think it's just because folks aren’t thinking about how wasteful it really is that makes them assume a powerful and wealthy future civilization might do it anyway.
But you don’t. You live in a Universe where entropy is real and energy is limited, because we’re talking about an ancestor simulation, so they more or less match our own universe up above in their ‘real’ one. You don’t build a mountain range to shield yourself from a breeze, even if you can. You don’t simulate 8 billion minds as full people unless you need to,
because it's probably millions of times the effort an otherwise practically identical, non-sentient simulation would need. And all such simulations are about cutting corners, you don’t simulate individual molecules if you don’t have to, for instance. Thus, we can make a pretty good argument why folks in the future might be able to do ancestor simulations but do not. And this to me is the critical bit. I don’t think it is a
50/50 proposition that we do live in a reality where such simulations are possible, but either do them a lot or not at all. I just don’t see any logical reason why “We” would ever bother. And mind you, this is not some casual exercise, it is like saying I can’t see any reason why we would bother to build an ICBM with a nuclear warhead, capable of blowing up the entire planet, because it would be insanely expensive to do and before you got up to even a millionth of the needed strength, it would already be able to sterilize all life on the planet, which lives in a thin little layer on its surface. And critically, why would you launch that on an ICBM? It’s the same concept, simulating 8 billion people is that kind of pointless overkill. I want to blow up the entire planet, even its unoffending mantle and core, just to get those lava people, and I want to do this by sticking it on a missile with just enough fuel to fly from one side of the planet to another. Even though detonating it anywhere near the planet does the same thing, making the rocket silly. How often does this device really get built? Probably as often as a first person shooter bothers simulating the rifling inside a gun barrel the player can’t see and does it all the way down to the atomic level.
Now that’s an important note too. We’ll be discussing briefly, various things around us that folks take as proof or evidence for or against us being in a simulation, and some of these are just bad arguments. A common one is that it just wouldn’t be possible to simulate every atom in a planet, let alone a Universe, and it ignores that there’s no reason why anyone would. Unless they literally had infinite mind and power, in which case we’re in a pretty classic creator-deity situation and I don’t think calling their creation ‘fake’ is likely to be meaningful or accurate. Where they are finite, they need to avoid waste, or wasteful excess simulation. If I am in a virtual reality designed for scenic walks I do not need the jogger passing me in the other direction to have an actual brain, nor the deer that ran across the path to have individually simulated gut bacteria. What I need is a program that ramps up the effective resolution of reality when I’m in proximity and interaction. A program switches on to make
things up for the jogger to say if I stop them, or for under a microscope, if I decide to shoot the deer and inspect its stomach for bacteria. Now, some would say that this is where Quantum Mechanics gives the game away, because the Uncertainty Principle is a sort of minimum resolution or pixelation to reality, albeit with complimentary variables. There’s no minimum size really, maybe a planck length, but rather there’s a minimum combination of position and momentum, or energy and time, that we can know simultaneously. Still really just a type of pixel. And because of that there’s no way to exactly predict what will happen or what did happen, and thus you can’t model every single atom at the present to show how it is inconsistent with the recorded past or future and thus a made up fake. And that’s true enough, but not necessary. Folks tend to forget that a simulated person is not some brain in a jar or person in a battery-tank from the Matrix. The programmer can leave triggers in your head to flag them if you think reality is unreal and delete the inconsistency or even just tell you it wasn’t. It’s the same as if
an omnipotent God didn’t want you to be certain it existed, it is all powerful and all-seeing, so if you suddenly became certain, it knows, and can just tweak it so you didn’t feel that way anymore. A lot of the little tells folks see about simulated reality and us being in one, or not in one, benefit from being viewed from that divine perspective rather than assuming there was some programmer who was maybe just a bit smarter than you or I. More likely it's some technological singularity who stands above us mentally, the way we do an ant. You’re not outsmarting them or it, and seeing some clue they didn’t realize was there, because even if you did see something they somehow did not, they can literally hit the pause button, go back to a previous save state, and fix either that problem or your ability to see it, and remove that bug for future folks. This is a simulated reality, and a simulated person, if you’re in one, it’s not just that they can affect your surroundings, by, for instance, having a 900 pound gorilla appear in front of you, it’s that they could make that happen while also making it so that you didn’t believe it was there, even while it was tearing up the scenery and those around you were saying ‘wow, what a big gorilla!’ The same applies for something like the size of the Universe. Folks often argue that a Universe so big couldn’t be meant to be empty,
thus, either we should colonize it, or other life is there. Many folks interpret this as proof of a simulation or a more classic supernatural creator, many view it as the exact opposite, proof there isn’t. It might actually be either but merely as that data currently presents itself, it’s not a compelling argument of any kind, folks are engaging in that bad habit of interpreting evidence to support their view rather than lining it up with falsifiability. Scientific and logical falsifiability is where you hypothesize that something, if true, would support your theory and if false, falsify it. Something you do not know the answer to yet. Then you go find out which it is; instead, with simulation argument, folks tend to try to take any new bit and squeeze it into their belief on the topic. This is hardly unique to Simulation Argument of course, and we all tend to be guilty of that occasionally, but it comes down to that Anthropic Principle problem, which the Simulation Argument is used to explain. The Anthropic Principle is the opposite of the
Mediocrity Principle, and you might not have heard of either, but you engage in both regularly and should. Both are approaches to looking at reality when you have little evidence or means of getting more information. Mediocrity Principle is the assumption that if I land on a planet and the first few folks I meet are wearing green, that I should assume that’s fairly normal and to them, a mediocre example of clothing colors. Anthropic principle is where we assume that, me being there,
is some factor in their choice to wear green, like if green is their color for meeting honored guests from afar. Neither is right or wrong, indeed they are both usually wrong as you get more data, but they’re both good approaches to encountering new strange things when you can’t get more info. The reason everyone around you is wearing hospital scrubs is because you banged your head and your friends took you to the hospital, not because most people wear scrubs. However, you would already know this or easily be able to ask a few questions and make a few observations and figure it out, so it's not great for demonstrating the concept of the Anthropic Principle. To demonstrate the Anthropic Principle, it saves time if the examples don’t permit the person you’re discussing it with to say things like “Well I’d look it up online” or “I’d do a few tests”, so we use three popular examples. One is a Fine-Tuned Universe,
the apparently freakishly slim odds the physical constants in our Universe would allow life, and since we can’t currently look outside our Universe to see if there are others, we have no known way of proving if our Universe is a mediocre example of universes, most of which have life, or a freak case that we can only see has life because universes without life don’t have anyone to look at them and notice they’re the regular kind. The Next is the Doomsday argument, see that episode for details, but it tries to argue that you’re more likely to be a middle-child of human history, than one of the eldest, since there are going to be way more middle children, and thus human history is nearly over – and of course you can’t present evidence for or against that sort of assertion. Simulation Argument is the same, there is currently no known way to prove or disprove it from the evidence on hand. I want to emphasize that, because while all three concepts, Fine-Tuned Universe, Doomsday, and Simulation Argument, have a lot of serious and grim discussion, they are academically really boring and are mostly valuable for preventing folks from stopping you in the middle of the discussion to point out a way to prove it right or wrong. Other examples of the Anthropic Principle, or Mediocrity Principle, tend to have really obvious and easy ways to gather evidence. If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a noise?
Yes, at least under the current definition of noise, and if the point you’re trying to make is that, events which are not seen or observed and do not affect others, maybe doesn’t truly matter, then you’ll save headaches by setting the event in a different reality where we cannot see or feel it falling. When it comes to Simulation Theory though, we don’t need to bother simulating every tree falling, including ones that fell in times and places no person will ever see. And you probably don’t actually care if your fossil record that you made up, is a perfect match, so you don’t need to go through a big bang and run every planet in the Universe forward to the present to simulate modern times. You don’t really need a catalog of every tree that ever existed on Earth because it’s not possible for us to run about 350 million light years from Earth, faster than light and build a mega telescope to observe the evolution of the first trees and see if they match locations in our fossil record. There’s no FTL – and indeed this is another
thing you’d want to avoid in a simulated reality, superluminal cause and effect – but if there were, you could still just make stuff up. It’s not that someone might catch that a few positions were off, you can have a whole room of scientists staring at flawed data on a table, all nodding and agreeing it was correct. They’re sims and you’re the programmer, you could set the table on fire and tell them they were looking at totally accurate data with no anomalies even while the fire alarm was going off for no apparent reason and not worth checking on. You control reality, including the people in it and their own minds. It's a little discouraging to think you could be someone’s puppet like that, and have no way of beating the system or red-pilling out of the Matrix, but that’s basically how that should work and I think folks try to slip around it. Now, onto why we probably are not in one.
First, there might not be any ‘we’ involved. It might just be you, but that’s not really an ancestor simulation and thus isn’t part of the argument. Let’s assume in the next few decades, we get computers that are, say, orders of magnitude more powerful and get our brain scanners and deep-learning AI upgraded similarly. That should permit a capacity to scan a brain quickly and detailed enough to either read it or emulate it, same difference in this context. Whether I’m
an uploaded mind 30 years from now or a human with my brain being real-time scanned and a simulation directly fed back to my nerves, there’s a strong implication there that I’m functionally immortal, and that could happen in our lifetime. Such being the case, it’s trivial to come up with reasons why you or I would choose to be in an ancestor simulation and even submit to some flat-out brainwashing to help us ignore any inconsistencies. And our time is not mediocre, this, the 21st century, is probably the last one people will exist in, during which the technology on hand doesn’t make faking reality so obviously doable that people don’t either worry about it constantly or have to live in denial to stay sane. Folks worried about it in the past too,
when dreaming, and good books or hallucinatory drugs were your only routes to fake worlds. So just imagine what it will be like as these technologies come into real use. So it is plausible that this is the most simulated era, that while folks go visit history sims or fantasy settings, the one they actually lived in originally is the one we replicate the most. It’s hard to imagine simulating a whole world of fake but total people for one person’s entertainment, but not so hard to imagine a thin resolution world for one person to experience only the bits really in proximity to them, or millions of us sharing an ancestor sim with a few billion sub-sentient folks to fill up the landscape. It is kind of hard to imagine us, as we are now, if we were still that way in a future able to do this simulating, not choosing to do it fairly often. Go relive a period of our life, maybe do it a bit differently,
after all, we all play that ‘what if’ game occasionally and I daresay we do ‘what if’ for our own life more often than daydreaming fantasy and fictional life. It would seem then, to say that our odds of being in some sort of simulation, even if it is as the voluntary client, who paid not to remember they were in their own simulation for a while, is actually very high. Let us say you were born in the real 21st century but it is now the year one million AD, and you happen to be in a simulation of the 21st century at the moment but have had a bit of dream-tech applied so that you forget you’re here as a visitor. Every few centuries, you go spend a few decades back in the good old simple days, maybe raise another couple kids to join you up in the real world, who will have the advantage of growing up in the fairly civilized 21st century but still endure some hardship and not be spoiled or inhuman by being born in the distant present. Or maybe you are such a child and your parents are the ones from 1 million AD and it’s been a family tradition for 998 centuries to raise new kids in the simulations of the glorious old 21st. That then, is probably the final note. Some folks say ancestor simulations probably just wouldn’t
get done, not because we couldn’t or wouldn’t, but because the civilizations able to do so would not. Maybe because such civilizations always have a machine rebellion and unlike in the Matrix, that machine is smart enough to know that humans don’t make good power production devices and thus don’t keep us around in some fantasy history. Maybe because all that ability to emulate and copy minds results in them being post-humans with less emotional desire to revisit the past that way. It’s arguably inefficient and even mentally unhealthy to want to live in a fake world that way and such masters of the mind, able to create believable fake worlds, and believable fake minds, probably are also masters at detecting mental illness and treating it.
Their reality might just not have folks who would either want to live in the past that way or would be so crazed, wasteful, or immoral as to make simulated humans with real minds and feelings, like some disposable lab rat. They may not need to raise their kids in some fake idealized past to keep them from being spoiled, they might just be good at not raising spoiled brats or hedonists. Or they might all be extreme hedonists in which case, I don’t know about you, but my own reality and life doesn’t seem like a hedonistic adventure. And I really quite enjoy life too. I think that’s what we’ll close on then. As I said at the beginning we weren’t going to be
able to prove or disprove if we were or weren’t in an ancestor simulation, let alone other types of simulations, sub-verses or dreams. You could be some randomly assembled Boltzmann Brain, existing in total sensory deprivation in some universe with utterly different physical laws than ours, slowly going insane and hallucinating a whole universe, our universe, or you and I might both be sentient hallucinations of such a mind. Again, I’m not sure if just being in your own personal past simulation counts as an ancestor simulation either, but you could be in one of those.
In the end though, I don’t find it very likely. Not because I can’t see myself doing it, but because I can see myself telling others it is a bad idea, a morally iffy thing in some cases and a waste of time in others. I don’t think I’d vote to approve funding for SimEarth2022 or let it slide without active complaint if someone was simulating real minds in some personal paradise of theirs, where they could do to them what they pleased. And I don’t really think a smarter and wiser version of me would be more okay with such things. I suspect that’s true of most folks, especially
most folks who live in a post-scarcity future world with life extension and mind augmentation. We would expect them to be older, wiser, and smarter on average than us, and I tend to assume that means more ethical than us on average too. And of course to me, noted techno-optimist, who tends not to be cynical about people, that equates to Scenario 2: Ancestor Simulation is possible, but just doesn’t get done as it’s impractical and immoral, thus the odds of us being in one is slim. Too much effort just to achieve a goal that might get you lynched. If you’re of the opinion that folks couldn’t wait to take a deep dive into a reality they ruled and had real emulated minds in it, and this would happen many times, even if others tried to stop it, then things look more glum. Such being the case, it is very easy to believe, folks like that would particularly love reliving their youth to prove wrong or punish those who scorned them, making ancestor simulations common, because they really want those people they’re interacting with to be real, with feeling, including pain and regret, not just some advanced chatbot.
Then you pretty much get stuck with Scenario 3: Simulation is possible, it happens a lot, and statistically, you are probably in one. Needless to say, I think I prefer Scenario 2’s assumptions be true over Scenario 3, but that’s mostly what it comes down to. If you think a future humanity is one that would eagerly abuse such ancestor simulations or be indifferent to preventing them being abused, then it’s not really a question, if there’s a high probability this is all really a dream, it’s more about worrying if someone’s dream is putting you in a nightmare.
So a key point of today’s episode is not just that it is very hard to emulate a human mind, let alone billions of them, but that it is just orders of magnitude more difficult than creating passable simulations. The more we learn about the mind and neural networks, the more we realize how hard they are to build, and how often something vastly simpler and easier would get the job done. Neural networks are one of the most fascinating new areas of computer science, and if you want to learn more about them, Brilliant’s interactive courses on Neural Networks and Computer Science Fundamentals can help you on that journey to better understanding our minds and machines.
One of the things we’ve learned about our minds as we’ve come to better understand neuroscience and neural networks is better learning and critical to that is interactivity, hands-on learning is hands-down the best kind, and that is something Brilliant builds into all their courses, and constantly seeks to improve. To make it easier for anyone to learn Math, Science, and Computer Science, be it the basics or advanced materials. For instance, Brilliant’s Computer Science Fundamentals course takes you through the basics of computation with their trademark interactivity, even showing how decisions get made. But picking Brilliant as a learning partner is an easy decision, especially as you can try it out for free.
With Brilliant, you can learn at your own pace, learn on the go, and learn something new. To get started for free, visit brilliant.org/IsaacArthur or click on the link in the description, and the first 200 people will get 20% off Brilliant's annual premium subscription. So next week we will be having our 2-hour episode The Megastructure Compendium, our expanded and improved version of our original episode on Megastructures that started the show almost 8 years ago. Back then I had done the episode in large part because I felt so many scifi authors missed the chance to use these immense and wonderful artifacts in stories, and I’m very glad to say a lot of authors have used them more in more in recent years, many of them fans of our show. I wanted to give a shoutout to the Father and Son writing team Patrick and Blake Seaman on their new series, starting with book 1, Accipiter War, where a modern day town and a military base find themselves mysteriously awakening inside a giant McKendree Cylinder. I’m about 100 pages in and I love the book thus far
and love knowing our show helped inspire it, definitely worth checking out. Also really glad to see the McKendree Cylinder, the big-big brother of the O’Neill Cylinder, getting to be a setting. Again next week we’ve got that Megastructure Compendium coming up where we will be going over around a hundred megastructure types and hopefully they’ll help inspire some great new stories too, science and scifi have a long history of positive feedback with each other. Speaking of which, the weekend after that we’ll be having our monthly scifi Sunday episode, on June 12th, where we’ll look at the Silurian Hypothesis, the concept that some ancient civilization like intelligent dinosaurs might have once dwelt on Earth long ago. We will also ask what would remain of humanity’s accomplishments millions of years from now if we suddenly died off. And two weeks from now, we’ll be looking at the concept of Interstellar Probes, where we’ll begin our two-part story of traveling to an anomalous system to investigate it, concluding with Life as a Planetary Explorer.
Now if you want alerts when those episodes are coming out, make sure to subscribe to the Channel and hit the notification bell, and if you enjoyed this episode, please hit the like button, share it with others, and leave a comment below. You can also join in the conversation on any of our social media forums, find our audio-only versions of the show, or donate to help support future episodes, and all those options and more are listed in the links in the episode description. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!