Of all the theories about the universe and how life could possibly have originated in it, there is one that is perhaps a little more far-fetched (or is it?) that proposes that we are actually living in an advanced virtual world.
Known as “simulation theory,” in its most basic form — and supported by a branch of science called information physics — it suggests that spacetime and matter are not fundamental phenomena. Instead, physical reality would consist mainly of bits of information, from which our experience of space-time arises.
If that theory wasn’t enough to digest — especially for those who haven’t seen the Matrix movie — theoretical physicist Roman Yampolskiy has also outlined, in a new paper, how we might escape if we were indeed trapped in a hyper-realistic simulation.
However, before we get into escape routes, we first need to establish whether we’re in a simulated universe. To do this, we must go back to the origins of the theory.
The “simulation theory”
In 2003 philosopher Nick Bostrom, of the University of Oxford (UK), was the one who formulated the simulation hypothesis, which partly derives from other ideas such as the one put forward by the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler in 1989, who suggested that the universe is fundamentally mathematical and can be considered to emerge from information.
Bostrom, for his part, with a more specific view of how this information emerged, assumes that this is because an advanced civilization would reach a point where its technology is so sophisticated that simulations would be indistinguishable from reality. , and participants not being aware that they are in a simulation.
So the question automatically arises: if we are not aware of it in a simulation, how to check if such a fanciful theory is “real”?
A universe filled with bits of information
This is where physicist Melvin Vopson of the University of Portsmouth (England) comes into play. In a recent essay for The Conversation, Vopson, in order to test the intriguing theory, puts forward the idea that if we actually lived in a simulated universe, it “would contain a lot of bits of information everywhere”. and that those bits would “represent the code”.
“Therefore,” writes Vopson, “the detection of these bits of information will prove the simulation hypothesis.”
Therefore, based on his own proposal of the “mass-energy-information equivalence principle (M/E/I)”, which suggests that “mass can be expressed as energy or information, or vice versa”, the physicist believes that the bits of information would have a small mass. So if you can find the mass of those bits, he adds, you’d theoretically detect the bits themselves.
As DW reported earlier this year, Vopson suggested that information, after solids, liquids, gases and plasmas, could be considered a fifth form of matter in the universe.
And as Vopson himself explains, his experiment to prove their material existence consists in “erasing the information contained within the elementary particles, leaving them and their antiparticles (all particles have ‘anti’ versions of themselves which identical, but oppositely charged) annihilated in a flash of energy, emitting ‘photons’, or particles of light.”
In case Vopson was able to demonstrate this, and we know we are trapped in a simulation, how can we then get out of it?
In a new article, Roman Yampolskiy, a computer scientist at the University of Louisville, tries to answer just that question and suggests some ways out of the simulation. Spoiler alert: none involve the blue or red pill like in the Matrix.
Among the various considerations, such as, for example, establishing what kind of simulation we are in, Yampolskiy proposes in the first instance to attack with brute force, forcing our simulators to use more and more computing power and therefore more energy, until they can’t ignore it.
“Perhaps we could send von Neumann probes to the farthest corners of the universe in an effort to deliberately increase resource consumption,” Yampolskiy quotes programmer Gwern Branwen, “or we could run our own simulations,” he added.
Gigantic monument in the track
Among the other methods outlined by Yampolskiy, the one of trying to attract the attention of the creators through a giant binary monument to let them know that we know it or that of “hacking” the simulation, even if, Yampolskiy admits, until now finds in the first phase of the investigation on possible escape routes and that, in reality, there is still a lot to understand.
Therefore, for the computer scientist, the next step would be to further investigate the structure of the universe, especially quantum mechanics.
“Since we are currently unable to read/write the simulation source code and don’t know if our attempted social engineering attacks will have any impact, our best bet is to investigate the structure of our universe on the smallest scale possible in the hopes to detect exploitable effects,” he wrote, adding that quantum mechanics has many quirks, which “would make a lot of sense” if we saw them as flaws or potential exploits.
“Such anomalies, alone or in combination, have been exploited by astute scientists to achieve what appears to be simulation hacking, at least in theory and often in subsequent experimentation (e.g., modifying the past, keeping cats alive both as dead, communicate counterfactually),” he continued.
“Although the quantum phenomena in question are typically limited to the microscale, it is sufficient to scale the effect to the macro world for them to be considered exploits in the sense used in this article.”
If after understanding the basic idea of ”simulation theory” you still consider that it is nothing but nonsense, it is worth noting that more and more scientists – especially the more we delve into quantum mechanics – who consider, at least up to a certain level, that the theory might be plausible. But regardless of which side you’re on, what is clear is that the nature of our reality is and will likely continue to be one of the biggest mysteries out there. In this sense, we still understand very little about the universe and our “reality”, so surely there are still many surprises that we will find on our way.
“The more seriously we take the simulation hypothesis, the better chance we have of proving or disproving it one day,” concludes Vopson.