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Will it be end of the world, or just an annoying computer crash? tech talk nick DeLorenzo


February 19. 2013 10:52PM
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The End of the World is Nigh! I'm going to go ahead and call this one a load of baloney. If I'm wrong, well, I don't care because none of you will be around to say Told ya so.


But among all the predictions of doom and gloom, another item has surfaced in the media – one that keeps getting presented as a new idea, even though it's not: the notion that maybe we're all living in a giant computer program, and all of reality is ... simulated.


I was amused by this thought at first, but after I read actual, legitimate scientific papers on the subject, I realized that perhaps there might be more to this than I'd initially thought. The problem is, we don't have any proof that we're NOT living in a program, and there might be some evidence that we are.


German researchers have released a paper that points out that any simulation of an object must be limited to a scale that's smaller than the object being simulated.


Even writing that hurt my head, so I'll try to rephrase it: You can't run a simulation of a good computer on a cheap computer. The researchers took a look at various constraints that the real world operates under – the laws of physics, quantum theory, all that good stuff. If we were living in a simulation, they reasoned, we should be able to see it break down when we look at it extremely closely. And they found something a bit troubling. When they looked at cosmic rays – energetic blasts released by various spacey phenomena, such as stars exploding and the like – the way they behaved at really high energy levels looked uncomfortably close to patterns that might originate from a computer simulation.


This isn't definitive of anything, really – it's possible, even likely, that we're missing a chunk of theory that would explain away this information. And there's no reason why a simulated universe would conform to our expectations of how such a program would run. But it didn't slam the door shut on the theory.


If I were simulating the universe, I'd probably set it up so that the people inside COULDN'T think about it. They'd never know the difference.


Not that they could hurt me if they figured it out. Or even do anything about it, for that matter.


Our computers are getting good enough to simulate extremely small chunks of the universe, on the micron scale or less, with near perfect accuracy.


So it's not inconceivable that we could simulate a working universe ourselves one day in the distant future. This raises all kinds of philosophical and ethical questions, but in the end, I shrugged these off. If I'm living in a simulated world, there isn't much I can do about it, and it's likely we'll never know, unless a dialogue box pops up somewhere in space saying we need to update our anti-virus software, or something like that. In the end, it doesn't make much difference one way or the other.


But for me, the only conceivable way the world might end on Friday is if somebody trips over a cord somewhere and knocks the power out.


Have I mentioned that I'm a big fan of backing up all of my files?


Nick DeLorenzo is director of interactive and new media for The Times Leader. Email him at ndelorenzo@timesleader.com.




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