“What if the reality we experience every day were really just a simulation running inside a giant supercomputer? Photographer is my life/Getty Images
The "Matrix" trilogy of sci-fi thrillers present the fascinating premise that what most people think of as reality is actually a computer simulation, created by super-intelligent evil machines who want to harvest human bodies for electrical power.
But the notion that our reality is a simulation isn’t just some clever plot device for screenwriters. A 2003 article in Philosophical Quarterly by Oxford University faculty member Nick Bostrom proposed that very thought right in its title: "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" He went on to argue that it was a distinct possibility that we were living in a simulation, at least based what we are capable of deducing from "the dark forest of our current ignorance."
More recently, popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson raised the prospect that we might not only be living in a computer simulation, but that simulation itself might have been created in a computer that isn’t real either, but simply is part of a simulated reality in the memory of an even more powerful machine.
That chain could go on endlessly, like someone standing in one of artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms. And even technologist Elon Musk has suggested he finds the reality-is-fake theory plausible.
But if the simulated reality idea is just a bit too unsettling for you, one development may soothe your jangled nerves. A new paper published in the journal Science Advances indicates that modeling reality from the level of fundamental particles would require almost unfathomably enormous amounts of computing power. From that, argue theoretical physicists and study authors Zohar Ringel and colleague Dmitry Kovrizhin, you can extrapolate that creating a virtual reality, with all of the complexity that we can observe and calculate, would be pretty much impossible.
That wasn’t the question that they researchers sought to answer. Instead, they sought to determine whether it was possible to use quantum Monte Carlo technique, a mathematical method, to model systems that have anomalies such as the quantum Hall effect. What they found was that they couldn’t. That’s because as the number of particles being simulated grew, the complexity of the simulation increased exponentially, so that the amount of computing power has to double each time a single particle is added.
While their paper actually doesn’t go into the implausibility of "The Matrix," it seems to make the idea of a computer massively powerful enough to simulate reality seem about as likely as some real-life parkour enthusiast duplicating Trinity’s chase scene stunts.
Now That’s Interesting
As an article in Popular Science notes, the limitations described by Ringel and Kovrizhin assume a universe with similar laws of physics to ours. That leaves open the possibility that a virtual reality program in which we exist was written by beings in a universe with different rules.