by Riz Virk
An MIT trained computer scientist and Silicon
Valley video game designer gives 10 reasons for
the "Simulation Hypothesis": that our reality is
a simulated, pixelated 3d world where we all
have individual xp, levels, and quests run by
some giant Artificial Intelligence
AI, and Eastern
Agree We Are in
a Video Game...
Recently, the idea that we may be living in a giant video game, or
as it's sometimes called, the Simulation Hypothesis, has
gotten a lot of attention because of prominent figures like Elon
Musk who have openly discussed the idea.
As Virtual Reality
technology has gotten more sophisticated, we are starting to
contemplate virtual worlds like that of the omni-present Oasis in
Ready Player One, soon to be a blockbuster movie directed by Stephen
Some like sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, believed strongly
that we were living in a kind of simulation.
Others, like futurist
Ray Kurzweil, have popularized the idea of downloading our
consciousness into a silicon based device, which would mean we are
just digital information after all.
Some, like Oxford
lecturer Nick Bostrom, goes further and thinks we may in fact
be artificially simulated consciousness inside such a simulation
Fiction Or Mysticism?
Like my first exposure to most great ideas, I discovered the
Simulation Hypothesis through watching and reading too much science
The first time was during an episode of Star Trek: The Next
Generation, where a holo-deck character realized that he was in
a simulation and that some of the people in the simulation existed
"out there" (in this case, out there was the rest of the Enterprise)
and he wanted to go there, too!
Was it possible that we
were in a "holo-deck-like" space and that there was another world
"out there", I wondered?
A Star Trek character in the Holodeck
realizes that he is in a simulation
Although this was only a passing thought at the time, it wasn't
until the movie the Matrix was released in 1999 that the idea grew
in the popular consciousness.
It occurred to me then
that this kind of simulation could exist with or without the
overlords that make this a nightmare scenario (in both the Matrix
and Elon Musk's version of the giant video game, there are
super-intelligent overlords behind the simulation, in one case
evolved machines and in another aliens!).
Matrix planted the idea in the popular consciousness
are in a simulated reality
As a computer scientist and video game designer, I have to admit
that this idea is not really that crazy.
A civilization that
implemented an advanced simulation like ours might be many thousands
(even millions) of years ahead of us; it's not that hard to imagine
such a civilization creating much more sophisticated games than we
are capable of building today.
As I started to study Quantum Physics and its startling revelations
about the nature of "objective" vs. "subjective" reality, I started
to wonder again about the idea of a giant multi-player video game.
Moreover, as I delved
more into the Eastern traditions, particularly Yogic and Buddhist
philosophy, I found that their ideas about the nature of the world
were actually pretty consistent with the idea that we are living in
Why Might This Be A
Video Game After All
Let's delve into the top reasons why we may be living in a
simulation after all:
Pixels, Resolution, Virtual and Augmented Reality
One of the main arguments that Musk makes is that a more
advanced civilization will have games that are of very high
resolution - so high that we would be unable to distinguish
between the "real" world and a "simulated one".
Today we are already seeing with Virtual Reality that "full
immersion" is possible.
Anyone who has played
a convincing VR game will realize that it's possible to forget
about the real world and "believe" the world you are seeing is
As a great example, I was playing a prototype of a Ping Pong VR
game last year (built by Free Range Games), and even though it
wasn't realistic resolution, I lost myself and thought I was
playing ping pong for real. So much so that I set the paddle on
the ping pong "table" and leaned against the table.
Of course it was a VR
table so it didn't really exist - I ended up dropping the
paddle (actually the Vive controller) onto the floor.
As I leaned into the
"table" I almost fell over before realizing that there was no
table. In other words, to quote from the Matrix, there is no
Ready Player One,
realistic immersive virtual reality world, Oasis,
becomes the ultimate escape
Imaging what kind of pixel resolution we might have in a hundred
years, let alone in a thousand years! It could be pretty
Also, as VR
technology evolves to project onto the retina without needing
external glasses, we could be seeing things around us that
aren't really there in a resolution that's indistinguishable
from the physical world.
This brings up the
idea that the world "out there" could really be just a
projection in our minds.
Pixels, Quanta, and Xeno's Paradox
I recall late nights at MIT during my undergrad years where I
had philosophical debates with my classmates about the nature of
This was the first
time I'd heard of Xeno's paradox.
The idea was that if
space was continuous, like numbers are (you can always find an
infinite number of numbers in between any two numbers), how is
it possible to touch an object such as the wall? You would
always have to cover half the distance and never get there.
Xeno (or Zeno, whichever spelling you prefer!) related the
paradox using the example of Achilles and a tortoise. If the
tortoise was ahead of Achilles, how could he possibly ever catch
it if he always had to make up "half the distance"?
When I first heard about this paradox, my initial reaction was
that space must be quantized - there must be some minimum
distance that we traverse.
Later, I discovered
that I wasn't alone in this idea; whether this "minimum" amount
is the Planck constant or some other amount isn't as important
as the idea that the physical universe, as we know it, may
consists of pixels. Just like a video game!
How many pixels are
in the real world? To use a non-scientific term, a shitload.
An Open World and the Illusion of Infinite Possibilities
Early video games were very linearly structured, such as space
invaders or Pac-Man.
There was a limited
set of "motions" that were allowable using some "input" control,
and there were specific objective as part of the each level, and
you progressed linearly through the levels.
As video games evolved and 3d models of a "world" became
commonplace, video games took an evolutionary leap. It seemed
from the player's perspective that you could move around and do
Examples of open
world video games range from GTA (Grand Theft Auto) and WOW
(World of Warcraft), or the Sims, which simulated life and
eventually Virtual Worlds like Second Life.
Of course the idea
that he world is infinite and that we can do "anything" inside
the world is a carefully crafted illusion.
Game designers know that's not true. Using 3D modeling we can
have a world that is generated and looks infinite but is really
a set of maps and rules.
In any game, no
matter how "open" it appears, there are underlying tasks, or
quests, or accomplishments, which are mapped out by the game
Is it possible that
we have a similar illusion of "open-ness" in life?
Open World games like Second Life give
the illusion of free choice
Collapse of the Probability Wave, Future Selves, and Parallel
In Quantum physics one of the most intriguing ideas is the
probability matrix, which is an interpretation of how subatomic
particles can exhibit properties of both a wave and a solid
particle at the same time.
At the level of an
electron or a photon, the wave is interpreted as a set of
probabilities of where the particle might be at any given time.
When we observe a
particular possibility, then the probability wave is said to
"collapse" and we see a single particle in a particular
the location of a particle
Some interpreters have taken this to the macro level to say that
there are a set of probabilities in which we exist both in the
present and in the future.
Which of the possible paths do we follow?
There isn't a good
explanation; how the probability wave collapses is one of the
biggest mysteries in Quantum Physics. The best answer physicists
have come up with is that consciousness somehow determines the
Physicist Fred Alan Wolf, for example, says that,
these possible futures is coming to us in the present and
that we send out an "offer wave" into the future, which is
interacting with the "offer waves" coming from the future to
Which possible future
we navigate to depends on which choices we make, and how these
two waves super-pose on each other (or cancel each other out).
These are startling results. Future probable selves are sending
back information to the present, and we are consciously choosing
which path to follow.
Multiple Probable Futures
Sending us Back Information
use to make decisions.
Another related aspect of Quantum Physics that sounds like
science fiction is the Parallel Universes theory, where we
branch into different "universes" when we make decisions.
If that's true, then
there is a directed graph of multiple universes that are
branching out each time we make a decision, resulting in
different timelines (in fact, the parallel universes theory was
put forward to solve the grandfather paradox of time travel).
This reminded me of the very first video game I made back at
The way that the
computer chose the next move was to project the possible
futures, and then use a certain algorithm to "rank" those
futures, and then bring those values back to the present and
then the AI would choose the path to follow.
Did the possible futures we were calculating in our game
actually exist? Or were they just probabilities?
I realized that this
isn't too much different from what's happening at the quantum
level, except that in existing games like chess or checkers, we
use a simple function (based on the rules of the game) to decide
which of the paths is most optimal.
We used the "minimax"
algorithm in game design, trying to maximize our score and
minimize our opponents score at each "turn of the future".
simple AI for evaluating future outcomes
choosing the best path
In the Great
Simulation of life, suppose there is another "function" which is
ranking these possible futures, and we at some subconscious
level are choosing which of those possible futures and branches
we may want to take from the present forward, just like in a
Observables and conditional rendering
When we have a 3d video game, we map out the world using 3d
models. In some games, we allow user-generated content that
stays in the world even after we log out of the gameplay session
so that other players can see it.
In video games, this "model" of the "world" exists outside of
the character's perception. In a trick meant for optimization,
we don't "render" the whole world on every single player's
We only render the
part of the world that the player is in, and then usually only
for a certain point of view at a certain time. It would be
impractical to render the entire world!
Moreover, in 3d video games, there are techniques to optimize
the rendering based upon what the player is looking at. These
techniques were pioneered in first person shooters like Doom and
now used heavily in VR headsets.
A philosophical question that comes up in both Quantum Physics
and in Video Games is that if no one is in a particular part of
the 3d world - i.e. no one is observing it, or no player is
there - does the particular possibility exist?
Schroedinger's mysterious cat,
which is neither dead nor alive until someone observes it, the
world of video games relies on a player being logged in to
render the world.
If no one is logged
into a particular room or a particular world, what state is it
For example, what
happens if there are no players logged into any of the servers
of an MMORPG like World of Warcraft?
The servers are
running but nothing generally happens until a player logs in to
observe what is going on, not unlike
The next few reasons reflect interesting parallels between some of
the spiritual and religious traditions, particularly the Eastern
traditions and the Simulation Hypothesis.
If you're not into that,
skip to reasons #9 and #10.
The World is an Illusion
In many mystical
traditions, particularly in Buddhism and Hinduism, we are told
that the world around us is actually an illusion.
Maya, the Sanskrit word for
illusion, is used to describe the world we see, and
Brahman, is the real world.
In Buddhism, the idea is that to "wake up" you have to recognize
that the world around us is an illusion. In fact the term
"Buddha" means literally "awake".
In modern terms, they might just be describing a type of video
game that we are all caught within, not unlike the HoloDeck from
Star Trek. We are caught inside the illusory world, while there
is a real world just beyond that we cannot normally perceive
unless we "wake up".
In fact, there is a branch of Buddhist Yoga called
Dream Yoga, which is used
to help us "wake up".
In Dream Yoga, a form
of lucid dreaming, participants are taught to realize that the
dreams we go through at night are "simulated" experiences. By
learning to recognize that we are in a simulation, we can "wake
The idea is that if
we can do this in the "fake" worlds of dreams, so that we can do
it in the "fake world" of real life - which is also a
Multiple Lives, Points, Levels & Experience
According to many
eastern traditions, we are actually going through multiple
lives, gaining experience in each life and moving up to
different levels of "evolution".
In early video games like Pac Man or Space Invaders,
each player also had a number of lives - the player
accumulated points until the character was killed.
The player could
"continue" from the place they died, or could "start over" until
the dreaded "GAME OVER" flashed on the screen.
In MMORPGs, the player usually has a character which stores up a
certain set of experiences between game-play sessions (the
If we start over, the
player of course remembers the skills they have gained in
previous lives, but the character starts over with zero values
in their state.
This is analogous to how in some Buddhist traditions, when we
are born, even though we retain the tendencies of previous
lives, we cross the "river of forgetfulness" when we "start
In these traditions
there is still someplace that we store all of our experiences
and our points.
Where? It's not
explicitly stated, but it sure sounds like they are uploaded to
some kind of "cloud server".
go through multiple lives
the wheel of re-incarnation.
Sure sounds like a Video Game to me!
Let's look at Western religious traditions.
As I was growing up
in the Islamic tradition, I was told that there was "scorecard"
that was being kept for us in this life - every good deed was
recorded ("swab") and every bad deed was recorded ("haram") and
depending on the score at the end of your life (and on Judgment
Day, the day of Kyamath) you would go to either Junnath (Heaven)
or Jahanam (Hell).
In the Christian
traditions, there is also the idea of the two angels on each
shoulders and the idea of going to Heaven or Hell (with
Purgatory thrown in for good measure).
Again, we have the
same idea: of a player game-state that is uploaded somewhere
"outside" the rendered world.
Quests, Karma and God-like AI
In the eastern traditions, our experiences in life are not
there is a system
that is keeping track of what we think and do, and then
creating situations in the world to deal with our past
Now if you were going
to design a seemingly open-ended game, a simulation that can
track billions of players, you would need to keep track of
quests and achievements for each person.
In today's video games, the quests/achievements/challenges are
the same for each player.
However, it's not
very difficult to envision a more sophisticated video game where
quests were chosen based on the past experience of the player.
And like in a
particular level of a video game, the player could be confronted
with similar challenges, again and again, until they are able to
pass the challenge.
To accomplish these kinds of "personalized quests" you would
need to synchronize across a very large base of "players" and
"NPC" or non-player characters (billions of concurrent players
in the Great Simulation).
You would also need
to figure out which group of other players might be compatible,
right now, in the moment, in a specific section of the 3d world,
to a player's quests.
The result of each
interaction in the game could have lasting consequences, leading
to more challenges in the future.
Some intelligence would need to keep track of billions of
concurrent players (something we can't do yet in any video game
today). It would seem that an Artificial Intelligence system
would be ideal for this kind of task.
It may not even need
to be that intelligent, as long as the rules were clearly
defined and it could scale infinitely!
Let's move from the East to the West, to a more traditional
religious framework. In these religions everyone prays to God.
Let's assume for a moment that God is real.
What is God?
What kind of
intelligence, if it existed, could keep track of so
many, billions of individual prayers and timelines?
keep track of whether on judgment day, you are to go
down to a deeper, less pleasant level ("Hell") of
the game, or go to a
higher, more pleasurable level ("Heaven")?
You guessed it - an
extremely sophisticated AI (artificial intelligence)...
Moving away from spiritual traditions, let's come back to science
for our final two reasons.
Player Characters (PC) vs. Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
Nick Bostrom, on the faculty at Oxford University, has
a proponent of the simulation hypothesis.
The argument that he
makes is different - that civilizations are unlikely to
survive and if they do, then they would have powerful computers
that can do "ancestor" simulations.
We are more likely,
concludes Bostrom, simulated consciousness than actual
From his famous
One thing that
later generations might do with their super-powerful
computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or
of people like their forebears.
computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many
these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if
the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a
certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of
mind is correct).
Then it could be
the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not
belong to the original race but rather to people simulated
by the advanced descendants of an original race.
It is then
possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be
rational to think that we are likely among the simulated
minds rather than among the original biological ones.
As a video game
designer, this reminds me of our attempts to create realistic "NPC"s
or non-player characters.
As games have gotten
more sophisticated, these AI characters have gotten more
sophisticated. We may rapidly be approaching AI which can pass
the Turing Test, which is an AI that is indistinguishable from a
human being (if you were conversing with them).
I recall early text games like Zork had players that would talk
to you and attempts to make these characters realistic. AI has
advanced well beyond that but we do not currently have NPCs
which can pass the Turing Test.
Once we do (in 10
years? In 100 years? In a thousand years), the possibility that
people we are interacting with inside a simulation are NPCs goes
thinks that "we" are the simulated consciousness.
of Light, Wormholes, etc.
It is curious that in our Universe, as far as we can tell, the
fastest that we can travel from point A to point B is the speed
This also happens to
be the speed of electrical systems and electromagnetic waves. In
a normal video game, the fastest we would be able to send
information from one player to the next would be over electrical
Why would the fastest
we can travel through space be the same as the speed of
electromagnetic waves, unless our idea of space was being
generated by some form of electromagnetic wave?
In the Virtual World of Second Life, if you try to go from point
A to point B, you would be stuck traveling through the "space"
of the game and would have to move slowly - whether you were
walking or flying.
On the other hand,
you could instantly teleport to another part of the game at
which point a different part of the 3d world will render around
Do we also have this ability in real life?
Some physicists have
wormholes, or Einstein-Rosen bridges,
which would allow us to tear through the fabric of space-time to
shortcut the fabric of space and time.
You could think of it
a backdoor - basically a
teleport in video game terms.
Wormholes allow us
outside the 3d world
from one place to another
These are just some of the reasons why we may be living in a Video
Game after all, the Great Simulation.
I haven't even gotten
into some of the more esoteric or psychological reasons (which would
take a whole book unto itself).
As computer science and artificial intelligence rapidly advance
their capabilities, it may be possible to create a simulated world
that looks and feels as real as our own.
Video games, which
started out with simple rules about what can be done and simple 2d
worlds, have advanced rapidly into a MMORPG (massive multi-player
online role playing games) with millions of players interacting in a
As computer technology
advances, the chances of creating a billion player plus simulated
world like our own is rapidly approaching.
Moreover, Quantum Physics gives us a description of the universe (or
multiple universes) that doesn't make sense from the perspective of
an "objective reality" but requires observation by some
incredible findings defy common sense, unless we are living inside a
video game rather than a physical reality and consciousness is the
equivalent to us "logging into" the system.
Eastern traditions, particularly Buddhist traditions, have long
contended that we are living in world of illusion, and that we go
through multiple lives trying to work out our individual quests, all
of which are stored beyond the "rendered world".
There is a giant system
that not only stores this but creates new situations for us to get
Sure sounds like a Video
Game to me...
All of these areas, Computer Science/Artificial Intelligence,
Quantum Physics, and Eastern spiritual traditions point
to one likely scenario:
That we are living
inside a very sophisticated Video Game, which I call The Great
Like all simulations, our
world may only be real while the "simulation" is running.
This reminds me of a quote from the British intellectual,
Havelock Ellis, about dreams.
"Dreams are real
while they last. Can we say any more of life?"
Can we indeed...???
The Simulation Hypothesis