If we’re living in a simulation, the singularity is here

(2011, Dawley). Teaching class in virtual world, Dr. David Gibson guest speaker.

Last year, I came across an article and video where Elon Musk proposed that we are living inside a simulation, “…that our odds this is base reality are one in billions,” an advanced form of technology where we are characters in an ever-manifesting role play, where our code base is written in atoms, molecules and DNA.

As a sci fi aficionado and a person who has researched, played, taught, and lived(!) in simulations and virtual worlds, I was intrigued by the simulation hypothesis, but initially responded to the claims, “No, definitely crazy talk.” Diving deeper into Elon’s and other arguments, the light bulb switched on, and I, too, was convinced the likelihood we are living in a simulation is very probable.

To understand this argument, you must first sustain your belief that technology equals machines or robots. “How can I be a simulated technology if I have blood, skin, veins?” To the pro-simulation believers, everything you see, touch, feel is a form of technology, all built on atoms as our base building blocks with DNA as our historical genetic code that evolves over time (this Quora post explains how living things are differentiated from non-living things, if molecules and the atoms they’re made of, are present in everything). Think of the advancing role of biotech over the centuries, from cultivation of plants and domestication of animals to Musk’s neural lace interface connecting our brain to AI, and the experimental geoengineering of weather. Humans seem predisposed to manipulate, control and reinvent their environment. The tools just keep getting more advanced.

Nick Bostrom (2003) began the argument by claiming at least one of the below is true:

  1. the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
  2. any posthuman population civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
  3. we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

The main problem I have with the first two of Bostrom’s arguments is that they assume a human-centric view, and imply it is our future selves running the simulation. Who says the creators of this simulation are human? Much like we have created science simulation games that allow us to tweak fantasy species or the environment to see what happens, humans on Earth may be the characters in another species’ advanced technology.

Pro Simulation Theory Arguments

  • Technology is exponentially increasing, doubling in capacity, function and AI capability every year. Today we have highly interactive games, simulations and virtual worlds with over 1B user accounts around the world (KZero has the best data on growth in virtual worlds that I know). These simulations are becoming more immersive with the use of virtual reality, augmented reality, haptic devices, and brain interfaces. If we are only 15 years or so into commercial virtual worlds, and tech capability doubles annually, in 40 years we’ll be a trillion times more advanced than we are today. Technology will be creating itself, humans will need interfaces to keep up. Can you imagine a species 10,000 years or 100,000 years older than us? How have they advanced their technology?
  • Universal laws appear mathematical, and as any computer programmer knows, games and simulations are built on laws of mathematics and logic. Ideas from information theory keep appearing in quantum physics. One very important concept is the observer effect, where reality or matter doesn’t exist until you measure it, and the instruments used to measure it can influence whether it will become a wave or particle.
  • As human’s age, their use of virtual worlds and sims evolves. In 2012, I published this chart (data courtesy of KZero), showing how younger children prefer simulations around books, TV, media, then evolving into social interaction, role-play and games as pre-teens, and finally ending in content creation and mirror worlds as adults. This evolution is part of what makes me believe we are the self-aware technology creating the new technology (see the Singularity event below).

One of the more entertaining questions about us living in a simulation is what if there is a bug? Some have humorously proposed that the 2017 Oscars snafu and the unexpected election of President Trump are prime examples of something gone wrong in the simulation. Other futurists and a couple of tech billions are taking a more pro-active stance, and working to break us out of the simulation. And wasn’t this what we feared all along, the “robots” controlling their own destiny?

Con Simulation Theory Arguments

  • Limited computing power – opponents argue that the computer processing power to run a global simulation that accounts for travel through the solar system and observation of the universe with universal laws doesn’t exist. Again, from my perspective, this is a current and limited human-centric view. We have billions of suns and black holes in the universe, capable of producing more energy than can be imagined by the human mind. We are, after all, powered on Earth, yes? And much like video games where the world emerges as it comes into your view, the observer effect in quantum mechanics does the same thing in real life. We see things as our technology advances and gives us the ability to see, and manifest, it.
  • Humans are mostly interested in themselves. No higher species would want to simulate them. Again, humans already invented simulations that give fantasy characters the ability to evolve as you tweak a feature here or there, just to see what happens. What if the human race is this form of simulation on a much larger and more elaborate scale?
  • Many humans live in poverty and extreme suffering. If the creator was ethical, why create such painful circumstances? These questions have always been asked about the creator of the universe, whether it is God, an advanced species or our future selves. The global eradication of poverty is a growing part of our human evolution, with philanthropists such as Bill Gates investing hundreds of millions of dollars for this purpose, and the United Nations progressively establishing goals and a sustainability agenda toward this end. Perhaps a necessary part of our evolution as a species isn’t to rely on the creator for the fix, but to use the tools at our disposal to fix it ourselves.
  • The argument is a violation of Occam’s razor, if there are two explanations for any occurrence, the simpler one is usually better. I don’t know, I think the fact we are living in a simulation explains a hell of a lot 🙂

Is the Singularity Here?

The Technology Singularity is a an event in time where technology becomes self-aware and surpasses the capabilities of humans. AI expert predictions place this event somewhere about 2040. If we are indeed living in a simulation, and the technology (the people in it) are starting to become aware of it, and investing millions of dollars to “break out” of the simulation, then the singularity is indeed already here.

I was fascinated to learn that Ray Kurzweil, futurist, a major author on the singularity, and director of engineering at Google is buying up AI companies and technologies at a very large scale. He is working on building intelligent chatbots that digest your writing, and have customized interactions with you, as we sit in our homes now talking to Alexa, Google Home, and Siri.

Curious where we go from here given exponential technology advancement? Check out these prediction charts 5, 10, 20, 40 and even 50 years in the future.

Ultimately, does it matter if we are the base world or if we’re living in a simulation? On a daily basis, probably not. We continue on and work to stay present in the moment, enjoying the life, family, friends and work we have. To others, it opens doors of unexplored possibilities and new horizons beyond our wildest dreams.

Your thoughts?

ARVEL SIG 2010 Program Announced!

ArvelLogoHiResThe officers of the Applied Research in Virtual Environments for Learning (ARVEL) SIG are pleased to announce the final program for this spring’s annual meeting at AERA. Thank you to everyone who submitted proposals, to our reviewers, session chairs, and SIG officers for all your hard work! Our acceptance rate was 67% this year, representing the work of over 65 educational researchers studying virtual worlds and immersive virtual environments.

We are pleased to announce that Eric Klopfer, MIT, will be our keynote speaker at this year’s Business Meeting. Also, for the first time, we are hosting a no-cost two hour workshop to support virtual world educational researchers with tips, tools, methodologies, and more! Food and social networking will be available at both the Business Meeting and Workshop, so we hope to see you in Denver–the final schedule is pending from AERA.


Business Meeting

Keynote: Eric Klopfer, MIT
Chair: Jonathon Richter, University of Oregon
Honorary Chair & Nominations: Chris Dede, Harvard University
Program Chair: Lisa Dawley, Boise State University
Co-Program Chair: Greg Jones, University of North Texas
Secretary/Treasurer: Diane Jass Ketelhut, Temple University
Membership: Brian Nelson, Arizona State University
Communications: Sabine Reljic, San Diego State University

1. Moving Forward by Looking Back: Lessons Learned about the Design of Immersive Virtual Worlds
Jody E. Clarke Harvard University: Chair
Designing Immersive Virtual Environments for Assessing Inquiry
Jody E. Clarke; Chris J. Dede; Michael Charles Mayrath, Harvard University
Past/Present: Successful new design approaches for game-based social-history education at the middle school level
Bert Snow, Muzzy Lane
EcoMUVE: Design of Virtual Environments to Address Science Learning Goals
Shari Metcalf; Chris J. Dede; Tina A. Grotzer; Amy Kamarainen, Harvard University
Greg Jones, University of North Texas: Discussant

2. Transformative Play: Games as 21st Century Curriculum
Taiga Fishkill: Example 1 of Transformational Play
Sasha A. Barab, Indiana University; Adam Ingram-Goble, Indiana University
Modern Prometheus: Example 2 of Transformational Play
Patrick Pettyjohn, Indiana University; Maria Solomou, Indiana University
CARDETAnder City: Example 3 of Transformational Play
Melissa Sommefeld Gresalfi, Indiana University
Virtual Mesa Verde: Example 4 of Transformational Play
Anna Arici, Indiana University; Charlene Volk, Indiana University Sasha Barab; Indiana University; Chair
James Gee; Arizona State University; Discussant
James Greeno; University of Pittsburgh; Discussant

3. Redesigning Leadership Preparation and Research Through Virtual Experiential Simulations – A Symposium
C. Brunner; University of Minnesota; Chair
S. Lynn Shollen; Hobart & William Smith Colleges
Edith Rusch; University of Nevada – Las Vegas
Karen Hammel; University of Minnesota
Mary de Leon-Denton; University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

4. Workshop: Educational Research in Virtual Worlds
Chair: Lisa Dawley
Invited presenters set up around room to discuss and demo aspects of their projects and/or products to support research in virtual worlds (i.e., new virtual worlds vendors, data collection tools in virtual worlds, specially-funded projects, etc.)

Roundtable 1: Using Virtual Worlds in K12

Chair: Chris Dede
1. K12 Teachers Encounter Digital Games: A qualitative investigation of teachers’ perceptions of digital games for K12 education
Michele Dickey; Miami University
2. Issues and Concerns of K-12 Educators on 3D Multi-User Virtual Environments in Formal Classroom Settings
Greg Jones; University of North Texas
3. Player Participation in Community Management in a Tween Virtual World: Opportunities and Challenges for Learning
Yasmin Kafai; University of Pennsylvania
Kristin Searle; University of Pennsylvania

Roundtable 2: The Intersect of Virtual and Real World Learning
Chair: Greg Jones
1. Design Principles for Embodied Learning in Computer-Mediated Environments
David Birchfield; Arizona State University
Mina Johnson-Glenberg; ASU
Philippos Savvides; Arizona State University
M. Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz; Arizona State University
Sibel Uysal; Arizona State Univeristy
2. Blended Inquiry with Hands-on and Virtual Laboratories: The Role of Perceptual Features during Knowledge Construction.
Eva Toth; West Virginia University
Lisa Ludvico; Duquesne University, Bayer School of Natural Sciences
Becky Morrow; Duquesne University, Bayer School of Natural Sciences
Dana Keener; Duquesne University
3. The Results of Formatively Evaluating an Augmented Reality Curriculum Based on Modified Design Principles
Patrick OShea; Harvard University
Mathew Cherian; Harvard University
Chris Dede; Harvard University

Roundtable 3: Learner Attitudes & Identities in Virtual Worlds and Game Environments
Chair: Diane Jass Ketelhut
1. Effects of modern educational game play on attitudes towards mathematics, mathematics self-efficacy, and mathematics achievement
Albert Ritzhaupt; University of North Carolina – Wilmington
Heidi Higgins; University of North Carolina Wilmington
S. Allred; University of North Carolina Wilmington
2. Virtual Orientation Environment: A Pilot Study of Participant Attitudes and Experiences
Chris Bigenho; University of North Texas
Anjum Najmi; University of North Texas
Mohammed Alajmi; University of North Texas
3. Dance Dance Education — Revolution and Rites of Passage, identity construction and sustaining engagement
Brock Dubbels; University of Minnesota
4. The Effects of Avatar Representations and Social Interactions on Perseverance in an Online 3D Virtual World
Ugochi Acholonu; Stanford University

Roundtable 4: Developing Community & Collaboration in Virtual Worlds
Chair: Jonathon Richter
1. Being Polite in Second Life: Discourse Strategies When Learning Collaboratively in a Virtual World
Yueh-hui Chiang; University of Texas – Austin
Diane Schallert; University of Texas – Austin
2. Understanding and Fostering Online Communities For Game Design
Sean Duncan; University of Wisconsin – Madison
Idit Caperton; World Wide Workshop Foundation
3. A Statewide University System Goes Virtual: Building Learning Communities in Second Life
Leslie Jarmon; University of Texas at Austin

Roundtable 5: Teaching & Learning in Virtual Environments
Chair: Brian Nelson
1. War Stories: Using a Virtual Contextual Environment to Support Student Writing for Students with Learning Disabilities
Elizabeth Simpson; University of Wyoming
Michelle Buchanan; University of Wyoming
2. Virtual Tutor Training: Building Effective Teaching Behaviors in Second Life
Peter Blair; Utah State University
Lee Mason; Utah State University
Nancy Glomb; Utah State University
3. Digital Dome Versus Desktop Computer in a Learning Game for Religious Architecture
Jeffrey Jacobson; PublicVR

Poster Session 1: ARVEL Posters on Virtual Environments
1. Using virtual worlds to engage youth in social initiatives: A case study
Selen Turkay; Teachers College; Devayani Tirthali; Teachers College, Columbia University
2. Mixed-reality simulations for education: Teaching and learning through virtual character interactions
Joseph DiPietro; University of Florida; Richard Ferdig; University of Florida; Lois Cao; University of Florida, Ethan Blackwelder; University of Florida; Shiva Halan; University of Florida; Benjamin Lok; University of Florida
3. Serious play: Exploring virtual leadership practices in the MMO World of Warcraft
Moses Wolfenstein; University of Wisconsin – Madison
4. Sailing in Schome Park: Humour and Learning in a Virtual World Project with Teenagers
Julia Gillen; Lancaster University; Rebecca Ferguson; Open University; Anna Peachey; Open University; Peter Twining; The Open University