Our life is a computer simulation or how to hack reality

Wars and epidemics, not to mention the appearance of asteroids bearing Earth's name, and perhaps the pesky limitations of light speed on space travel. You might want to go back in time and teach your teenage self how to behave with your parents, or buy Google stock. Is it possible to improve the universe a little more?

That's the question David Anderson, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, SETI enthusiast, musician and mathematician, recently asked colleagues and friends.

In recent years, the idea that our universe, including ourselves and all our innermost thoughts, is a computer simulation driven by a thinking machine working for the cosmos has permeated culture on every level.

In his influential 2003 essay, Oxford University philosopher and director of the Institute for the Future of Humanity Nick Bostrom offers this idea, saying that a "technologically mature" civilization, exploring its history and entertaining its descendants, could probably have easily achieved this. As far as we know, the lead actor in the simulation, Elon Musk, seemed to endorse this idea when he once stated that the odds of us living in a "base reality" are only one in a billion.

This is hard to prove, and not everyone agrees that such a rapid increase in computer power is possible, or inevitable, or that civilization will survive long enough to see it through. But we cannot dismiss this idea either. This is why thinkers like Dr. Bostrom argue that such a possibility should be taken seriously. The idea of the Great Simulator is partly reminiscent of a recent theory by cosmologists that the universe is a hologram, with quantum codes at its edges determining what happens inside.

A few years ago, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Anderson began discussing the implications of this idea with his teenage son. If it was all a simulation, it could be improved simply by changing the program. "As a programmer, I thought about what exactly this change would accomplish," he wrote in an e-mail.

He said that if the software is well designed, it should be easy to customize. Buttons such as menu items, speed filters, closed captions and pop-up blocks that make our lives richer or more fun to click could be modified to change the laws of physics or add new features to the universe.

Moreover, if the software controlling the universe were open-source, i.e., made available to other programmers for inspection and manipulation, these "meta-hackers" could answer our requests for features and even search for them, as Berkeley claims. Dr. Anderson's colleague Dan Worthy suggested. Think of it as a cybernetic version of prayer, a way of addressing the Great Simulator.

Dr. Anderson recently polled his colleagues about how they would change the Unisim space algorithm. He then published the answers on his blog, along with comments on how and to what extent they might be effective.

"It was during Covid's time that he spent his free time writing various essays on philosophy, politics, music, etc. and posting them on his website. The emphasis was not on eliminating wars and injustice, but on functions that would help us little fish of the universe "live."

For example, Dr. Anderson wants to be able to push a button and see his every move in orange. "I can see where I've been in Berkeley, or if I go to the Sierras, I can see all the hikes I've done there. Another button highlights all the trails I've been on. Is there a place no one has ever been to?" I pondered this. My son added: "Is there going to be a joke I'm going to tell to elicit laughs?"

Other respondents would like to see a feature that would allow them to interrupt the metaphor long enough to come up with a poignant line in the conversation, or a rewind feature to undo a disappointing remark or return to a missed opportunity.

Dr. Andersson notes that while these requests may seem simple, such functions require considerable computing behind the scenes. For example, if you want to pause the universe to gather your thoughts, you can let your existence branch out into parallel simulations over time, and when you decide what you want to say, you can press the escape key to return to the original simulation. If you rewind to correct the past, the simulation will also branch out, but in this case, according to Dr. Anderson, you will continue the parallel simulation and never press escape.

Of course, "habits that form over time prevail. By going back to the future, you can force yourself to remember things that have not yet happened in the present. This will change the future and make it not the way you remember it when you were first there.

Likewise, going back in time can change your memory of what happened in the future. It can even interfere with our existence, as when the time traveler in Ray Bradbury's classic novel The Sound of Thunder steps on a butterfly and returns to a future where the world has been taken over by the Nazis. (Or, like Homer in the Simpsons episode "Time and Punishment," accidentally creating an unknown world with a donut.) Time travel is obviously the most dangerous practice.

The ultimate expression of road rage, which Dr. Anderson calls "death stare," is very popular. Offending drivers and their cars can be punished in an instant by being incinerated by a powerful laser.

On his blog, Dr. Anderson writes, "For obvious reasons, all these prosecutions should open up a new universe."

"I have no doubt that within a day or two someone will be threatening me with death," he wrote. "And in a few weeks almost all the drivers will be incinerated. So the best way to implement this is to have any kind of death branch off into a new universe where the required arson takes place, and the original universe continues without arson."

What's on your cosmic wish list? How would you set up a supreme algorithm? The year 2023 has just begun. There's still plenty of time to ask space hackers for better conditions. Watch for butterflies and keep an eye on what you wish for.


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