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SEATTLE — It sounds like a scene out of "The Matrix": sentient machines create an alternate reality to subdue the human population, all while using the humans' body heat and electrical activity for gain. But researchers say it is a possibility worth considering.
Researchers at the University of Washington say they have found a way to test whether human beings are actually living in a Matrix-like computer-simulated world created by sentient beings.
The idea came from a 2003 paper published in Philosophical Quarterly by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford. Bostrom focused on the idea of the posthuman, a type of future being that was once human, but whose capacities exceed those of present humans to the point that it can no longer be classified as such.
Bostrom said one of three things has to be true:
- The human species is likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage.
- Any posthuman civilization is very unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history.
- We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
He said "the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation."
Based on Bostrom's arguments, the UW researchers proposed tests that could be done on a limited scale adhering to today's laws of physics. Currently, simulations of the universe can only be done on a one 100-trillionth of a meter scale, a little larger than the nucleus of an atom.
Martin Savage, one of the researchers, said more powerful simulations, even to the scale of a human being, will eventually take place, but it will take generations of growth in computing power to be able to run such tests.
"If you make the simulations big enough, something like our universe should emerge," Savage said.
When it happens, though, there are signs to watch for that would indicate the existence of an alternative reality, according to Savage.
Savage and his team believe one such test could be looking for a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays. In a computer simulation, they say, the highest-energy cosmic rays would travel diagonally instead of along the lines of the lattice in the model. They would also not interact equally in all directions.
"This is the first testable signature of such an idea," Savage said.
The idea of an simulated universe opens up other areas of research, if it turns out to be reality. According to Zohreh Davoudi, a UW graduate student working with Savage, if our universe is a simulation, those running it could be running others, as well, leaving us with parallel universes to discover.
"Then the question is, ‘Can you communicate with those other universes if they are running on the same platform?'" she said.