Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Holodeck Scenario: Part I

GlobalI just finished a 13,000 word contribution to Nick Bostrum’s new anthologized nonfiction treatment of calamity, to be titled GLOBAL CATASTROPHIC RISKS, containing articles on everything from nuclear war to nanotechnology “gray goo” to cometary impacts. I plan to serialize my draft here, seeking feedback before putting it online, either on Amazon Shorts or Jim Baen’s exciting new zine ASTOUNDING SF. (Yes, he has the title.)

Won’t that be a nice break from politics?

But first, before I start in on that heady tome, let me weigh in on what I consider to be the worst possible catastrophe of them all. One that would explain every stupidity in the world today. That we are living in a very poor simulation.

StonesSignificanceNuevoCome on, guys, face the evidence. Science fiction (starting with my own stories "Reality Check" and "Stones of Significance") has been toying for some time with the notion that we are living in a simulation. This notion has been supported from two directions.

First, witness our own burgeoning ability to create vividly realistic simulations, using computers, making ever more plausible the notion that simulations might someday become so detailed that the entities within it would experience ersatz emotions and memories indistinguishable from the "real thing."

Then there are strange results from science. Physicist Alain Aspect and his team discovered that under certain circumstances subatomic particles such as electrons are able to instantaneously communicate with each other regardless of the distance separating them. It doesn't matter whether they are 10 feet or 10 billion miles apart, apparently violating standard notions of "causality connection" which are supposed to be limited by the speed of light. University of London physicist David Bohm believes that Aspect's findings imply that objective reality does not exist, that despite its apparent solidity the universe is at heart a phantasm, a gigantic and splendidly detailed hologram. Stanford neurophysiologist Karl Pribram has also become persuaded of the holographic nature of reality, from the
The-Holographic-Universe-Talbot-Michael-9780062014108completely different direction of explaining the power of the human brain. (For more, see Michael Talbot's book The Holographic Universe.)

All right, the notion is gaining some degree of plausibility. But suppose it's true. In that case, whose simulation are we living in? Some vast future Omega Point consciousness? Aliens, simulating weird alternative life forms? (Plausible, since human beings are so crazy.)

Naw, it should be simpler than that. And much more consistent with the irrationality we see around us?

How about this one? That we are all living inside someone else's Start Trek Holodeck dream. Is there any way we could test this hypothesis? A method that goes even deeper than cybernetics, neurophysiology or even physics?

Simply look around and see who has been impossibly fortunate, vastly out of all proportion to personal talent and competence, or even family privilege, or even any possible intervention by anomalous good luck!

Next, consider that a long-lasting Holodeck experience will not just be about being lucky, winning every poker hand and getting every girl. Heck, that's boring. Sitting around in a harem on a pile of jewels? feh. Gets tired quickly, take my word for it!

UNIVERSEFAKEAnyway, if you simply win every hand, it's hard to forget that this is a simulation. If that is your aim -- to live in a wish fantasy while still being able to pretend it's real -- well then you want all the cool stuff to happen in ways that at least marginally let you fool yourself... into believing that you earned it all. Not because you dropped a lot of quarters into the Holodeck slot, but because you're more deserving. Because you’re gooder. Because you're better than everybody else.

Yeah! That’s the ticket. Tell the Holodeck computer to simulate real opponents - all the smug, assured, brainy types you hate. Only in this new universe they will lose despite all their fancy book smarts.

And your allies? Fun guys who know how to party and help you give wedgies to the smug, smartypants nerds. Yeah! As for luck? Well, set the game to easy, of course, but with LOTS of nerds to overcome and lots of social rules to flaut. And while victory should follow victory, it should never be TOO obvious. Make it gradual enough to last. So you can avoid the real enemy. Boredom.

All right, then, folks. Can YOU see anybody around you whose life we must clearly all be revolving around, in his personal holodeck program?

Continue to the Holodeck Scenario Part 2...


Tony Fisk said...

The Holodeck Scenario: Part II

Is this repeat posting meant to be a form of deja vu a la matrix?

Actually, it occurs to me, with this observation about objective reality not existing, that the universe may adjust itself to be as we wish it...

Do not adjust your mindsets: reality is at fault!

Except... it doesn't oblige! How long has humanity considered itself the centre of the universe, only to find that observations push us further and further to one side.

Or can this be explained by some form of perverse tamagotchi?

David Brin said...


I forgot I posted this as a comment in earlier form.

Behooved to finish it though. Will do it tonight and then move on.

Anonymous said...

"Anyway, if you simply win every hand, it's hard to forget that this is a simulation."

Surely, a society that can build a holodeck can give you some kind of "Forgetfulness" pill (or a "Kid Yourself" pill).

Anonymous said...

Well, really my preferred "brain-in-a-jar" scenario is the one where our world is an A.I. production facility.
After all, if -as may be the case- we will realize that the best way to obtain an A.I. it's not to project it from scratch but to give it a basic design and let it evolve by interacting with the enviroment, what would be the most productive way to mass-produce them, painstakingly grow them up in the real world (quite similar to what we do with our childs...), or put a lot of them in a simulation, and reap the final good results, letting the bad ones erase themselves? (maybe keeping them stored for future reference..).
Ehy, it would justify most of world religions!

Jack K. said...

Upon reading this posting I was reminded of a passage from Alan Watt's book,"The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are". On pages 134-15 in the paperback version, he describes the origin of God and the world. The gist of his description is that the world has no beginning and no end. He uses the Mobius strip as a metaphor.
As for God, he suggests that God likes to play hide-and-seek. He hides from himself by pretending to be all others and all things.

To cite one short passage. "You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that he isn't really doing this to anyone but himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad."

It was an interesting premise when I first read it about 30 years ago. It still has some currency to me.

Thank you for this reminder.

Rob Perkins said...

I suppose it shouldn't be terribly surprising to me that another's concept of God comes across to me as strange and foreign...

But honestly, am I the only one in this crowd whose largish religion does *not* insist on man and Earth at the center of the philosophical universe?

As far as the idea that we're part of a simulation, part of me reacts reflexively: "Yes!" That's also a function of my religious and cultural upbringing.

But it leads me to think: isn't "We're all in a holodeck" no more, really, than a restatement of ancient Greek substance/essence dichotomy? The stuff of every Christian seminarian and Jewish rabbi since a few centuries after Aristotle?

Pound away...

Anonymous said...

"Science fiction (starting with my own stories "Reality Check" and "Stones of Significance") has been toying for some time with the notion that we are living in a simulation."

Erm, I know you didn't mean it this way, but this reads as if you are claiming primacy on the idea.

When I started reading Heinlein, I ran across a story called "They" from 1941, and realized that I had read it many years before I started "reading Heinlein!" It was one of those solipsistic stories that immediately appealed to my juvenile mind. I really WAS the center of the universe!

Of course today I KNOW that I am the center of the universe, now as a conequence of the Big Bang. But so is everyone else and every place else. Thus do ethics evolve: if I am the most important thing in the universe, and so is everything else, what behavior modes will maximize the importance of it all? Therefore, learn about it all, know many people, and try to perform "correct actions."

But I agree, it is "merely engineering" to get from computer simulation now to convincing immersive ones.

There was a great article on the Holographic Universe in Scientific American. The article clarifies that the holographic universe is a convienent model for looking at solving certain problems that are intractible otherwise, for example the existence of gravity or what "temperature" means in a black hole. It is kind of like another frame of reference in relativity or using imaginary numbers - finding a convienent way to approach a problem. But a hologram and a holographic universe only share root-words, not essence. While a hologram contains almost all of the information needed to reconstruct an image that appears 3-D, it does not contain the information to reconstruct the object itself.

Using the term "holographic universe" and holodeck in the same article is funny if you know what they mean, but it would be easy to misconstrue what you discuss here as "proof" that we live on a holodeck or even that the holographic universe needs something external to simulate it, rather than a natural theoretical outcome of maximum information density. I think that the universe is a simulation of itself.

Watch, now, as Newsweek publishes your article with the cover story of, "Science Proves the Existance of God!" (Seems like every other issue has religion as the cover story nowadays.)

Anonymous said...

Going WAY back . . .

In Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, after aeons of strife, a multi-galactic civilization begins to knit all the universe's sapient life, past and present, into a vast Cosmic Mind tasked with determining the nature of the driving force behind it all.



After countless millenia, the Mind does see the face of the Star Maker. Who gazes cooly at the universe and, in effect, says "Huh, that one turned out kind of cool! But I'm still not satisfied!", tosses it all in a trash can and moves on to work on the next version.

Anonymous said...

This holodeck theory certainly explains a lot. In fact, I'm going to form an organization to lobby for teaching it in public science classes. : )

Anonymous said...

"That we are all living inside someone else's Start Trek Holodeck dream"

The problem with this scenario is that if the user loses this 'game' then the rest of us lose as well. The universe collapses. Game over. The only way we can continue our existence is if we all play along and pretend we don't realize it's a simulation. Give the user what he wants - even immortality - and we'll keep this program running till the end of time.

Now, who was the user again?

Anonymous said...

"Now, who was the user again?"

Maybe that is the game that the user is playing...

Anonymous said...

This holodeck theory certainly explains a lot. In fact, I'm going to form an organization to lobby for teaching it in public science classes. : )

LOL! Oh, very nice one Ryan!

Actually, it explains more than "Intelligent Design" (sic), so you might have a chance!

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's me. I have decided to come forth and reveal myself to you all, so you can worship me as the truly godlike being that I am. On your knees I say and tremble with awe. Gaze in rapt wonder at my magnificant stature and shower me with riches. And chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate... Did I mention the chocolate? Do NOT forget the chocolate.

Anonymous said...

All hail to the USER. Let us adore his holographic splendor and may he bless us with simulated happiness.

Anonymous said...

Does this mean that there will be a reboot in 2008?

(also, I hate to mention this, but isn't this form of reasoning really close to Plato's cave? Doesn't the author of this piece/site loathe Plato? Ah well, at least there's a sense of humour about it, even if we could go "out like a candle" if the "user" wakes up.)

(me, I just want to find the esc button.)


Tony Fisk said...

Gaze in rapt wonder at my magnificant stature and shower me with riches. And chocolate.

Ah, the cocoa bean!

Clear evidence of an insatiable intelligence at work!

(In light of this revelation, I foresee vast movements aligning themselves in accordance with a new trichotomy: white, milk, or dark)

...goodness me! Can the state of the world be put down to the Almighty experiencing sensory overload due to her avatars having increased access to chocolate in recent times?

Sir Joseph Crabtree would have loved this line of research (had he ever existed)

I recommend Terry Pratchett's 'Thief of Time' for more ramblings in this vein!

Elsewhere, New Scientist points out that we are actually quite dumbly designed. (bad spines, sinuses etc. They left out an alarmingly high incidence of chocolate intolerance!)

Shig said...

For quite a few years now I've been assuming that our present reality is a sadistic experiment run by a couple of schoolboys on their laptop during lunch. "OK, this time let's see what would have happened if Brin the First had lived at the beginning of the collapse of American democracy instead of at the end. Oh, and throw in lots of hurricanes, too."

JGF said...

My Fermi paradox page, goes into this a bit. More there. Some comments:

1. There's not much if any distinction between living in a simulation and living in a theist's universe. In both scenarios ominipotence and omniscience are possible.

2. See Nick Bostrum's page:
He uses bayesian reasoning to argue we most likely live in a simulation.

3. Simulation living is one solution to Fermi's Paradox -- we're alone because that's by design of the simulation. (See also #1)

4. Even if we live in a 'simulation' , who's to say we're not accidental epiphenomena? My dog had a life rather like the figure in your scenario.

5. Besides weird interconnectedness. one place to look for evidence of a simulation would be too look for odd reuse and tricks to lower the burden of running the simulation. Using the same cycles to do things at the macro and micro levels, too much recursion in nature, etc.

6. If the world has too many people thinking, does the simulation slow?

7. If you play with quantum computers, are you hacking the simulation?

Great topic. I do wonder if one might not eventually come up with 'fun' tests to run ...

Anonymous said...

The Holodeck Scenario: Part II just finished a 13,000 word contribution to Nick Bostrum’s new anthologized nonfiction treatment of calamity, to be titled GLOBAL CATASTROPHIC RISK, containing articles on everything from nuclear war to nanotechnology “gray goo” to cometary impacts.

Hardcore. Bostrom seems like an interesting thinker. Have you had the chance to meet him, David?

David Brin said...

Bostrum is interesting... but alas, less broadminded than I hoped.

I will serialize my essay on risk... but it won't be in his volume.

Anonymous said...

On John's #6, there would be no way to tell if the simulation slowed down.

Anonymous said...

@Thane Walkup:

[[ On John's #6, there would
[[ be no way to tell if the
[[ simulation slowed down.

For most people, true. However, those people who hang out with a TRUE USER (no reason to think this isn't an MMORPG) might notice them regularly doing things a little faster, or at least not wasting time thinking as much as ususal.

If this is an MMORPG, then there's increased hope that the world won't end in the coming of the great hard drive crash. Surely they'd use a RAID array or something...

-- Matt

Anonymous said...

"Up there--. God? In a dirty bathrobe?"

Anonymous said...

Yes, there is a way to test it. Are there scale invariant laws of physics? Is there an upper limit to computing power as a function of a computer's volume? If the answer to the first question is "yes" or to the second question "no" then we cannot be living in a Matrix-type simulation, because no Turing machine could compute such a simulation in any finite amount of time.

These are, at least in principle, answerable questions. Laurent Notale has been talking about the first question for some time, and Daniel Wolpert has paid some attention to the second.

Yes to the first or no to the second excludes the possibility of meaningfully asserting that the universe is a simulation. It remains possible to imagine that the world is a simulation run by a being with a hypercomputer in a reality where hypercomputing is possible, but that assertion is indistinguishable from religion.

Anonymous said...

As far as being correlated to religion
why would the "programmer" want to
be worshipped?

Also, zen is a method not a "religion"
perhaps Zen Buddhism was meant.

Anonymous said...

I shall start a new doomsday religion!

Since this is all a simulation, there is no point in continuing this farce. We can as well do the bold thing and try to derail this game.

Our goal will be either to spoil the game for him or even try to kill him! We could even try to trap his mind by making him go insane.

Death to Existenz!

Death to THE_USER!


Bill T.
Prophet of the Game Over Church

Anonymous said...

Holographic simulation?....Hmmmmm....
I suggest that the universe might be a simulation, but it might also be generated as a colorized shadow of a higher dimensional construct.
This might explain a few seeming impossibilities.

Anonymous said...

"...Sitting around in a harem on a pile of jewels? feh. Gets tired quickly, take my word for it!"
Didn't realize the literary life paid that well, David.