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Do we live in a computer simulation? UW researchers say idea can be tested
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A decade ago, a British philosopher put forth the notion that the universe we live in might in fact be a computer simulation run by our descendants. While that seems far-fetched, perhaps even
incomprehensible, a team of physicists at the University of Washington has come up with a potential test to see if the idea holds water.
The concept that current humanity could possibly be living in a computer simulation comes from a 2003 paper published in Philosophical Quarterly by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at
the University of Oxford. In the paper, he
argued that at least one of three possibilities is true:
- The human species is likely to go
extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.
- Any posthuman civilization is very
unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary
- We are almost certainly living in a
He also held that “the belief that there is a significant chance that we
will one day become posthumans who run ancestor simulations is false, unless we
are currently living in a simulation.”
The conical (red) surface shows the relationship between energy and momentum in special relativity, a fundamental theory concerning space and time developed by Albert Einstein, and is the
expected result if our universe is not a simulation. The flat (blue) surface
illustrates the relationship between energy and momentum that would be expected
if the universe is a simulation with an underlying cubic lattice
With current limitations and trends in computing, it will be decades
before researchers will be able to run even primitive simulations of the
universe. But the UW team has suggested tests that can be performed now, or in
the near future, that are sensitive to constraints imposed on future
simulations by limited resources.
Currently, supercomputers using a technique called lattice quantum
chromodynamics and starting from the fundamental physical laws that govern the
universe can simulate only a very small portion of the universe, on the scale
of one 100-trillionth of a meter, a little larger than the nucleus of an atom,
said Martin Savage,
a UW physics professor.
Eventually, more powerful simulations will be able to model on the scale
of a molecule, then a cell and even a human being. But it will take many
generations of growth in computing power to be able to simulate a large enough
chunk of the universe to understand the constraints on physical processes that
would indicate we are living in a computer model.
However, Savage said, there are signatures of resource constraints in
present-day simulations that are likely to exist as well in simulations in the
distant future, including the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used
to model the space-time continuum.
The supercomputers performing lattice quantum chromodynamics
calculations essentially divide space-time into a four-dimensional grid. That
allows researchers to examine what is called the strong force, one of the four
fundamental forces of nature and the one that binds subatomic particles called
quarks and gluons together into neutrons and protons at the core of atoms.
“If you make the simulations big enough, something like our universe
should emerge,” Savage said. Then it would be a matter of looking for a
“signature” in our universe that has an analog in the current small-scale
Savage and colleagues Silas
Beane of the University
of New Hampshire, who
collaborated while at the UW’s Institute
for Nuclear Theory, and Zohreh Davoudi, a UW physics graduate student,
suggest that the signature could show up as a limitation in the energy of
In a paper they have posted on arXiv, an online archive for preprints of scientific papers in a number of fields, including physics, they say that the highest-energy cosmic rays would
not travel along the edges of the lattice in the model but would travel
diagonally, and they would not interact equally in all directions as they
otherwise would be expected to do.
“This is the first testable signature of such an idea,” Savage said.
If such a concept turned out to be reality, it would raise other
possibilities as well. For example, Davoudi suggests that if our universe is a
simulation, then those running it could be running other simulations as well,
essentially creating other universes parallel to our own.
“Then the question is, ‘Can you communicate with those other universes
if they are running on the same platform?’” she said.