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This article was published on October 4, 2017

Despite evidence to the contrary, we may still be living in a computer simulation

Despite evidence to the contrary, we may still be living in a computer simulation
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Scientists last week published research indicating that, by current means, it would be impossible for us to live in a computer simulation. It turns out reality is natural and this is, evidently, the only universe that exists.

Then again, classical computers are on the verge of being replaced by the incredible quantum computer that will change the way we compute, so maybe this is a case of bad timing.

The researchers are real-deal scientists, with degrees in science, who work for the theoretical physics departments at Oxford University, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and NRC Kurchatov Institute. They know what they’re talking about. It would be silly and arrogant for anyone — especially a tech journalist — to dismiss their work.

Instead, if we take it at face value, it’s easy to see that this doesn’t necessarily apply to future computing methods. The research papers begins with:

It is believed that not all quantum systems can be simulated efficiently using classical computational resources. This notion is supported by the fact that it is not known how to express the partition function in a sign-free manner in quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) simulations for a large number of important problems.

The scientists support this theory entirely with their work, and it’s pretty easy to agree that classical computational resources are inefficient. Basically, the universe itself isn’t big enough to crunch all the data it would take to work out a few small problems, thus it’s impossible something so large as the universe could be worked out with something so banal as a binary computer.

But what about quantum computers?

The researchers submit that it’s unlikely they could be used for simulation because they could, theoretically, be made of materials that are more complex than our ability to simulate said materials:

Notably, some of these systems with purely bosonic degrees of freedom can be used as hardware for universal quantum computations therefore, simulating them classically in polynomial time is likely to be impossible.

But this isn’t specifically disputing a quantum computer’s ability to function in such a way that it would be possible to simulate a universe.

They also posit other reasons why quantum computers might not be up to the task, but only anecdotally as it wasn’t the focus of the research they were conducting.

The scientists also weren’t able to attack the problem head on; it’s a theory that’s designed to be quite clever. The researchers stated:

Establishing an obstruction to a classical simulation is a rather ill-defined task. A related, yet more concrete, goal is to find an obstruction to an efficient quantum Monte Carlo (QMC), which is one of the chief numerical workhorses in the field.

This tells us that they’ve found a way to debunk a way in which some thought might be the path to proving a simulation exists, but doesn’t rule out simulation theory itself.

Professor Nick Bostrom’s theory relies on three simple statements:

  1. The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a post-human stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero, or
  2. The fraction of post-human civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero, or
  3. The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one

The simulation hypothesis put forward by Bostrom, and subscribed to by Elon Musk, doesn’t rely on classical computational methods. It remains a scientific hypothesis awaiting conclusion. Simply put, it says either we’re in a simulation or future humans aren’t capable of running one, or they simply don’t want to.

Our current crop of quantum computers are the first nascent efforts in the field. It’s simply not rational to imagine that we understand the computational limits of the future, and that means we still can’t claim the the first statement is true.

The brilliant scientists may have dashed all hope that a binary computer will ever be capable of simulating a reality, but they don’t quite explain away quantum processors.

We’ve reached out to Professor Nick Bostrom, the author of Simulation Hypothesis, to see what he thinks and will update as applicable.

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