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By MARK DELLA-LIBERA | December 7, 2067





Simulated Consciousness Unraveling The RAM of Existence
...that bit of data in the RAM of Existence
The theory goes that if the universe is ultimately describable by information as we understand it - a big assumption, to be sure - then it follows that reality can be described as the output of a cosmological QBASIC.
What if the simulation is coarse, low-res, for instance? What if our reality is in fact only a corrupted rudiment of the real thing? Maybe it's not an authentic historical simulation we're living in, but a tawdry child's game designed to teach, say, morality? Or simple n-dimensional geometries, or the reasons that a species possessed - or devoid - of some characteristic is doomed to self-destruct? We might be laughably facile processes, built to demonstrate a single mundane truth; unsophisticated shadows of a reality whose splendor we're too primitively implemented to even conceive of.

We might be a glitch, an unanticipated ripple of logic to be cleared up during Beta. We might be a virus, or the instruction manual, or a subset of something much, much more important. Maybe we're just part of the scenery.
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We take photos with our cell phones and upload them via cloud to social networking sites, which transmit both the image and a whole bunch of metadata about who took it, and where and when, to the whole world to see and to respond to. That same phone will store databases of contact information that make your mom's Filofax look laughably primitive; it is your calculator, your calendar, your flashlight and your own portable augmented reality portal; it's your capacitive, oleophobic window into a billion other minds; into more information than you could absorb if you lived to a thousand. It will connect with the heavens themselves to find you, just about anywhere on the planet you happen to be.
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One of the more compelling ideas to come out of the eruption of digital thought is what's known as the Simulation Argument, first outlined nearly a decade ago by an Oxford University Professor named Nick Bostrom. Pared down to the barest skeleton, it goes like this: if you accept the assumption that eventually we'll develop computing power superior to the sum of human intellect, it follows that we ourselves may be nothing more than the output of an elaborate piece of software. If we're ever capable of simulating human consciousness, then maybe we're actually the result of that simulation. Because we can't know the future, can't know whether or not we ever achieve such a technological triumph, there's no way to prove - or disprove - that we're not living in a simulated universe right now. And of course to us, it would all look completely natural.

The original theory supposes that we'd be living in an "ancestor simulation," run by our own posthuman descendants wanting a peek into their history - but there's a strong whiff of 'in His image' egoism there. If we're going to theorize that digital architecture can be extended to encapsulate the subtlety and depth of human consciousness, not to mention an apparently infinite physical universe, then let's not hobble our hypothetical programmer with the crude boundaries of humanity. If we're going to hypothesize, let's really let loose.
Exhausted yet? Now consider how free will might work in this simulated life.

Of course, we'll never know the truth of any of this. Like any good nugget of philosophy, the Simulation Argument prompts a million new questions and declines to provide a single answer. The point is, though, that by embracing the futility of the unanswerable, we can unlock new kinds of thought, new ways of being. It doesn't matter that we can't know the truth one way or another, what matters is that ideas like this help to adjust our perspectives on who and what we are. They help us to better grasp our experience of sentience on planet Earth, that mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam - or, perhaps we should think of it as that bit of data in the RAM of existence.
That's pretty freaking cool.
In 2002, mankind passed a quiet but remarkable milestone - that's the year we entered the digital age; when more of our collective knowledge was stored in zeros and ones than in all analogue media combined. We think. It's a little tricky to be precise about something so nebulous and scattered, but we do know that the tipping point came sometime after AOL announced that it would pay a not inconsiderable $162 billion to take over Time Warner, but before some kid called Zuckerberg had a pretty good idea about books, and faces.

Why is it so momentous? Well, ten short years later, just about every aspect of our lives relies on some form of digital information. From the bleeping machines that track our growth in utero to the climate control in the hearse that delivers us, CAD-crafted coffin and all, to our final holes in the ground, we spend our whole modern lives in a simmering mantle of digital…stuff.
But the real impact runs far deeper and with less glamour. Digitalization is changing us, changing the way we perceive the very nature of reality. Did you know that there's a whole field of study dedicated to reverse engineering the source code from which the universe might have sprung? Oh yes, and it's not only reputable, it's at the bleeding edge of latter-day metaphysical thought. The theory goes that if the universe is ultimately describable by information as we understand it - a big assumption, to be sure - then it follows that reality can be described as the output of a cosmological QBASIC. And if we can wrap our tiny minds around such a code - well, presumably the plan is to get to work creating our own little universes, and waiting for the poor souls inside to evolve into sentience and try to prove that we exist.

It's heavy math, and the more you delve into it the more you get that Alice-tumbling-down-the-rabbit-hole sensation: it's dark, unexplored territory we're in. The idea that time and space are made of discrete bits is as old as the bearded Greeks, but the notion that we might actually master it poses a raft of new questions about ourselves and our gods, the whys and wherefores of our own existence.

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