By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
The invention of artificial intelligence would make more than just androids possible. If we discover that sentience can be produced artificially on a computer, then we could create entire simulated worlds filled with simulated sentient beings. We could upload our consciousness onto a computer and live out our lives interacting with the real world through computers.
Sims but Conscious
The people would be like in The Matrix, where the nature of the world people experience is digital; except, instead of having flesh and blood humans plugged into the program, all the people would be digital, like the Oracle and Agent Smith.
In a Sims game—the games in which towns can be built and make progress over time— these worlds aren’t truly simulated as they are incomplete and the people in them aren’t conscious.
In a truly simulated world, the world would be complete and programs that dictate how the individuals in the world behave would be just as sophisticated as the programs running in human brains.
Imagine versions of Sims games where a family could be overseen—the people in that family go on to live their lives, even while the game is not being played.
The programs controlling those people’s behavior would replicate what our brains do to control us. A digital world filled with such people would be a simulated world.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Reasons behind Simulated Worlds
The reasons we would have for making such worlds, besides having really kick-ass video games, are numerous. Suppose people wanted to know the long-term consequences of a piece of legislation. We could make a simulated world where that legislation is passed and see what happens.
If people want to really know what would’ve happened had Hitler won World War II, they could create a simulated world in which Hitler won World War II. Or if they want a better understanding of how evolution works, or even how our species evolved, they could create a simulated world that replicates the early conditions of Earth, and then watch it go.
The potential reasons and applications are seemingly endless. In the Doctor Who episode ‘Extremis’, a villainous race, known as the Monks, simulates all of human history in order to figure out how to properly conquer the human race.
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Traits of a World Like That
One of the interesting things about simulated worlds is that they would not have to happen in real-time. Just like in the Sims, the rate at which the centuries pass could be accelerated. As Oxford professor Nick Bostrom points out, with sophisticated enough technology, the entire history of the human race could be simulated in just a few seconds.
Another interesting thing about simulated worlds is that their inhabitants wouldn’t know their world is simulated. Not only would this be necessary for the simulation to be accurate—people would behave differently if they knew their world was simulated—but it would simply be a consequence of the way the simulated world is designed.
Their brains would function just like ours and would be receiving electrical inputs just like ours. They would, therefore, interpret those inputs in the same way and, therefore, have the exact same kind of experiences that we do.
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Experiences of Inhabitants
In other words, a simulated world would not look like the movie TRON, so it would not be bright and streamlined, with everything glowing in neon colors. Neither would it look like the Matrix, where green computer code vaguely resembles objects and people, thus revealing its digital nature.
The inhabitants of the simulated world would experience it as an actual physical reality. In the same way that we experience a wall as solid even though it’s mostly empty space—because atoms are mostly empty space—the inhabitants of a simulated world would experience a wall as solid even though it is entirely digital. So a person couldn’t tell from the inside of a simulated world that they were in a simulated world.
The question this raises of course is this: How do we know that we’re not living in a simulated world—that what we and everyone else is experiencing isn’t actually a digital simulation? Just like the question of whether someone is dreaming, or is in the Matrix, or is really an android, it seems the answer is that we can’t know for sure.
Common Questions about How a Simulated World Would Look
If we could we’d make simulated worlds for many reasons apart from our own entertainment. We could use these worlds to simulate the future or the past or even alternate histories for research purposes and also because of our own curiosity.
Simulated worlds would not have to happen in real-time. For example, the rate at which the centuries pass could be accelerated and the entire history of the human race could be simulated in just a few seconds.
In a simulated world, the inhabitants wouldn’t know their world was simulated. This would be necessary for the simulation to be accurate—people would behave differently if they knew their world was simulated—and it would also be a consequence of the design of the simulated world.