Virtual reality is in the news today primarily due to recent advances in mind-computer interfaces such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and Facebook’s Oculus Rift VR headsets. Computed simulations of reality have been around for years – think of weather simulations, nuclear reaction simulators, Minecraft, and The Sims – but these new headsets give us the ability to immerse ourselves in our computer simulations. Combine an Oculus Rift headset with software like Star Citizen and you can experience a highly detailed and convincing alternate reality.
Given Moore’s law and the economic rewards of computer gaming, it’s only going to get better. Greater computational power and armies of graphic artists and game programmers will produce more and more life-like simulations. Improvements in the mind-computer interface (headsets, gloves, etc.) will bring you further into those simulations. Sooner than most of us anticipate, virtual reality will become simulated reality – the simulation will be so good that we cannot tell the difference between the “real” reality and the simulated reality.
However, as long as the seat of your consciousness remains external to where the simulated reality is computed, you will be able to distinguish between the “real” world (where your consciousness is seated) and the simulated one. No matter how lost you are in space battles on the other side of the horsehead nebula, eventually your body will rudely interrupt with a growling stomach or by simply falling asleep. As much as some of us try to dismiss reality, reality cannot be denied.
To fully enter a simulated reality, you need to become part of that reality. What if the mind-computer interface included a robotic couch that popped Hot Pockets in your mouth and functioned as a toilet? What if your sleep cycle was incorporated into the simulated reality and falling asleep was part of the simulated experience and not an interruption? What if your personal reality was managed so well by the simulated reality that reality was incorporated into the simulation? Welcome to The Matrix.
This is the Simulation hypothesis. The simulation hypothesis contends that reality is in fact a simulation (most likely a computer simulation), of which we, the simulants, are totally unaware. Besides being the inspiration for and foundation of numerous science fiction short stories, novels, and movies, the simulation hypothesis is a metaphysical hypothesis. It’s another answer to the old “who am I?” and “what am I?” questions that have been around since the inception of human consciousness.
Oof. Metaphysics is way too heavy for a blog post. Let’s try a fun thought experiment instead.
Consider this: if you are in fact nothing more than a brain in a vat connected to a supercomputer running the best virtual reality software ever conceived, how would you know? Could you prove that “reality” was simulated? Believe it or not, some people are taking this question seriously and are trying to answer it. One line of approach uses the fact that all simulated reality software relies on a cubic grid structure to define space/time. It has been observed that this grid manifests itself in subtle ways in the simulation, providing hints of the underlying grid’s existence. If these clues are found in our world, then maybe we are glimpsing the “real” reality from within the simulated reality.
A more obvious clue would be changes in the laws of physics. If physics are simulated by software algorithms running on a supercomputer, then it’s possible that there are bugs in the programming that would cause shifts in say, the force of gravity. If the laws of physics remain unchanged then either the software is perfect or the entities who are running the simulation that we are part of are adjusting our perceptions and memories to compensate. In either case, from the viewpoint of the simulated, the simulators appear to be gods. Or God.
Which brings us back to metaphysics. My head hurts.
So now you see why VR can get too good.