In His Image*

  On January 3, 1963 aired an episode of the Twilight Zone that I’ve not forgotten even though I was then not quite eleven years old.  My memory doesn’t always serve up perfection, but generally does well enough to summon up the gist. 

  We meet the chief protagonist, Alan Talbot, early on.  He seems to be going about his life in an average sort of way, but starts getting headaches and memory problems.  Visiting his hometown with his girlfriend he finds that nothing looks familiar.  Then, walking along a road confused, a car bumps him and he rolls into the ditch alongside.  Shaken, he stands up and checks for injuries. 

  Just before giving himself a clean bill of health, he examines an abrasion on his right forearm which strangely does not bleed.  We watch as he peels it back revealing lights and gears etc.  He’s a robot and no less astonished uncovering that fact than are we.


  Good story huh?  Well, it came to mind the other day when I read a paper written by Nick Bostrom, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Oxford.  It’s serious, well wrought, and entitled “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation”.

  “This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman 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.”

  It is all too easy to understand statement (1), but it is not unreasonable to doubt (hope!) that’s (not) how the future will unfold.  For statement (2) to be the way things pan out Bostrom argues that all future civilizations must converge in their inability or unwillingness to undertake ‘ancestor-simulations’.

  Statement (3) is by far the most interesting.  Perhaps we are not in the fundament of reality.  Perhaps some zitty ubergeek is at the controls.  When he/she/it detects incipient awareness in one of us he/she/it rewinds and edits or maybe just sends us to a bar.

  Computing power has increased incredibly and the pace seems only to quicken.  Moore’s Law has shortened from eighteen to twelve months.  Watson, the supercomputer that just bested the Jeopardy human champs juggles 80 trillion calculations a second spread over ninety servers.  At least one big thinker, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that a PC sized machine will be able crunch that much that fast in a decade or less.

  Bostrom demonstrates that there are no theoretical limits to continued expansion.  In a posthuman stage of civilization, he posits, such a mature stage of technological development will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers.

  Extremely sophisticated simulations are employed today for all manner of undertakings.  It seems inevitable that our distant descendants would run simulations of their forebears.  Furthermore, …”if we don’t believe that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations…”

  Implications?  No radical ramifications.  There might well be subtle modifications to our belief systems related to a desire to understand posthuman motivations, but “no tendency to make us ‘go crazy’”.  However, I guess I’d hope that they don’t run out of computer power or trip over the plug.    

*In His Image was the name of the Twilight Zone episode…

**Veracity of proposition (3) would ‘aha’ the manner in which mathematics perfectly describe the whole fabric of our universe.

***cf Post of 12/24/11 in which I discussed the concentric circles in the cosmic background radiation that Roger Penrose posits are vestiges of a former universe and how it might relate to “a Platonic world of abstract realities that can be discovered by human investigation, but are independent of human existence”.

****Here is Professor Bostrom’s paper.  Read it.  You’ll be blown away.

2 Responses to “In His Image*”

  1. andrew gierke Says:

    The closer computers get to mirroring human characteristics the more interesting it becomes to consider what makes the three pounds of jelly in our craniums different from a circuit board.

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