“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” is one of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein. Even the thought of equating reality with illusion might seem oxymoronic but why don’t we humor this thought for this blog post and delve deeper into the what’s, if’s, and how’s of living in a simulation.
What I mean by the word simulation, for the purpose of this post, is a complex system that’s artificially imitating life albeit with such a precision that it’s impossible to even discern that it’s fake. Here’s where things get tricky. If we were to actually test the realness of reality (or fakeness), we would actually need a way to do so, something we are not equipped to do right now. This is exactly where Newton’s flaming razor sword (a philosophical razor devised by Mike Alder) is useful. What Newton’s flaming razor sword means is “that what cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating”.
So, if we cannot test that we are actually living in a simulation, it’s not worth debating, and more likely than not we are living in reality and NOT in a simulation. BUT theoretically is it possible for us to ever live in a simulation? The answer is YES, IT IS! But how you ask? Well let me give you the down low…
For a civilization to be advanced enough to upload their life into a simulation, technological advancement would be imperative. Thanks to the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, we have something called the Kardashev scale. The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to harness from it’s galactic system. The scale has three designated categories:
- A Type I civilization — also called a planetary civilization— can harness all of the energy which reaches its planet from its parent star.
- A Type II civilization — also called a stellar civilization— can harness the total energy of its planet’s parent star, in our case, the sun.
- A Type III civilization — also called a galactic civilization— can control energy on the scale of its entire host galaxy
(Kardashev scale: modified from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale)
Current estimates state that we are right now a 0.72 on the Kardashev scale (so not even a 1 yet), being able to harness majority of the energy that reaches us from the sun. If we were to ever make it to Type II, we would be harnessing not only all our planetary energy but also all the energy from the sun. It would then be possible to channel all of sun’s energy through a Dyson Sphere!
Repopularized by Freeman Dyson in his 1960 Science paper titled “”Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation”, a Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical megastructure that completely encompasses a star and captures most or all of its power output. In the case of our sun, that colossal power output would be 400 septillion watts per second, which is on the order of a trillion times our current worldwide energy usage. A Dyson sphere would most likely consist of solar panels or small mirrors engineered to completely encompass space near the sun and channel it’s energy into another conduit. Although the initial designs and concepts of a Dyson sphere have been criticized by physicists and categorized as “mere science fiction”, science fiction aficionados recently have become proponents of a more feasible alternative to the sphere, a Dyson swarm.
(Dyson Swarm image from http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/deep-space/a11098/could-we-build-a-dyson-sphere-17110415/)
Similar to the Dyson sphere, a Dyson Swarm would consist of thousands of relatively small mirrors or solar panels in an array of orbits around the sun. There would be no need of actually physically assembling these solar panels into one megastructure and this would overcome a lot of engineering hurdles. A robot-driven manufacturing process could build up a Dyson Swarm in as little as several decades and once assembled the individual solar panels could be controlled like Satellites. Like a dense cloud of bees buzzing around a hive, a Dyson Swarm would shroud the sun from external view, capturing most of the available solar energy and functioning efficiently.
So if we can become a Type II civilization and harness all/most of our sun’s energy, how do we start living in a simulation? The answer is simple, we just channel all that energy into a supercomputer. A hypothetical design to do so has been proposed by Robert Bradbury and it’s called a Matrioshka Brain. The hypothetical megastructure is named after the Russian nested dolls called Matryoshka dolls because of it’s nested design.
Such a supercomputer would be nested right outside the Dyson sphere/swarm that surrounds the sun and as opposed to solar panels/mirrors in the sphere/swarm this nested structure would be composed of nanoscale computers. The inner shell (Dyson swarm) would absorb the energy radiated onto it’s surface and utilize that energy to power the nano-computer swarm surrounding it. The nano computer swarm will also re-radiate extraneous energy outwards. Depending on the temprateure inhibition to the computing abilities, there could be multiple nested shells transferring energy such that the outermost layer of the Matrioshka Brain could be almost as cool as interstellar space.
One possible use of a Matrioshka Brain as suggested by Charles Stross, in his novel Acceleando, would be to run perfect simulations or “uploads” oh human thoughts into the virtual reality spaces made possible by the immense computing power of the Matrioshka Brain. A virtual universe where we live in artificial reality forever. As humans would no longer be bound to the planetary resources anymore, this virtual reality would exist as long as our central star, the sun, exists. Everyone could live in their perfect “reality”.
Are we currently living in such a simulation? It’s up to you to decide. But in case we are not, we might be able to one day. As humanity progresses and gains technological advances, such a design or similar more feasible designs to power a supercomputer reality might become more feasible. As Freeman Dyson wrote in his 1960 Science paper, “One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star.”
Are the hypothetical conceptions of Dyson sphere and Matrioshka Brain just bogus science fiction or theoretical frameworks for future technological advances? Could these hypothetical designs be similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s prototype designs of spring cars, helicopters, tanks, gliders and parachutes that are all reality now?
Decide and Let me know what you think in your comments!
PhD Candidate, Biochemistry, University of Iowa.