Fractal levels of simulated reality, forsooth!

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

I’m sure I ran a story similar to this a while back, but I’m damned if I can find it in the Futurismic archives, so I’m gonna mention it anyway: it’s the one about the folk building logic-based processors within the virtual spaces of computer games, the latest example being the insanely popular (and rather lucrative) Minecraft. Find blocks of material with the right in-game properties, chain ’em together, and hey presto, you’ve got a simulated arithmetic processor made of non-existent lumps of an entirely fictional substance. Whole lotta meta, right there.

I think the reason I love these stories is because of the extrapolatory end-point: the implication is that given simulated spaces of sufficient size and complexity (and sufficient player-hours, or clever macros to obviate the need for such), one could build a computing device within that simulation which was itself capable of running a simulation within which another computing device could be simulated. Sort of like Nick Bostrom rewriting Lavie Tidhar’s “In Pacmandu”… it’s simulated turtles all the way down! Now, where’s the door back to my origin reality, please?

One hundred years of cyborg solitude

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2010

21st September 2060; New Southsea, Disunited Kingdom

September is the old man’s favourite time of year. This morning New Southsea basks in the upper twenties as the summer sear fades out, and the high tides leave less silt in the streets. “Shorts weather, young lady,” he mumbles around his post-breakfast smoke, smiling in the sunlight as the post-grad girl clears away the crocks, boots up the base-unit for his ancient spex and helps him over to his scarred thriftwood desk. “Great day for an etymological celebration, I reckon.”

She can’t help but agree; he’s a grumpy old bastard a lot of the time, but his enthusiasm’s infectious when it takes him. Someone somewhere in New Southsea celebrates some marginal anniversary or festival every day of the year, but as obscure temporal landmarks go, today might take some sort of award. She’s surprised by how much she’s been looking forward to it… though again, she figures she’s just tuning into the old man’s vibes somehow. The reason seems inexplicably unimportant. Continue reading “One hundred years of cyborg solitude”

Living Earth Simulator: super-detailed simulation of environment, economies, societies, kitchen sinks

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2010

I badly wanted a copy of SimEarth when it was released, but the clunky old 8086 passed down to me by my father (who’d recently splashed out on a 386DX with math co-processor, no less) couldn’t run it.

I’m pretty positive that no machine I (or anyone else unattached to a well-funded research organisation) could afford will be able to run the Living Earth Simulator, either [via MetaFilter]:

In the past, supercomputers have been used mainly in physics or biology, or for difficult engineering problems such as the construction of new aircrafts. But now they are increasingly being used for social and economic analyses, even of the most fundamental human processes. At the CCSS, for example, Lars-Erik Cederman uses large-scale computer models to study the origin of international conflict, and is creating a large database documenting the geographic interdependencies of civil violence and wars in countries such as the former Yugoslavia or Iraq. In sociology, simulations at the CCSS have explored the conditions under which cooperation and solidarity can thrive in societies. They show that the crust of civilization is disturbingly vulnerable. These simulations reveal common patterns behind breakdowns of social order in events as diverse as the war in former Yugoslavia, lootings after earthquakes or other natural disasters, or the recent violent demonstrations in Greece.


Complementary to large-scale computer simulations, the FuturIcT project also aims to gather and organise data on social, economic and environmental processes on an unprecedented scale, especially by augmenting the results of field studies and laboratory experiments with the overwhelming flood of data now resulting from the world wide web or massive multi-player online worlds such as Second Life. Furthermore, the rapid emergence of vast networks of distributed sensors will make data available on an almost unimaginable scale for direct use in computer simulations. At the same time, an ethics committee and targeted research will ensure that these data will be explored in privacy-respecting ways and not misused. The goal is to identify statistical interdependencies when many people interact, but not to track or predict individual behaviour.

In plain English: these people want to build a simulation of the entire planet that takes into account almost every type of data we can shove into it, in the hope that we can use said data to foresee (and perhaps forestall) the next big disaster on the timeline – be it environmental, economic, biological (ZOMFG bird/pig flu!) or social. No idea if it’s feasible (though it doesn’t sound too ridiculous), but it’s surely ambitious, and more than a little bit awesome.

The rational part of me understands that such a simulation would consist of billions of complex calculations running through an array of supercomputer processors (or maybe networked desktop machines running something like the SETI@home software), and wouldn’t be very exciting to simply sit and watch. The less rational part of me that grew up watching James Bond movies really hopes that – somewhere – there’ll be a big interface screen with a spinning globe on it, with which I could spend the rest of my life fiddling around, cackling like some insane minor Moorcockean deity.

Of course, it’s always worth remembering that we could actually be living in an incredibly complex computer simulation already

None of this is really real

Paul Raven @ 15-08-2007

Via the indispensable TerraNova blog comes word that no other organ than the New York Times itself is running an article that talks about the Simulation Argument. This exceptionally science-fictional slice of philosophy, created by one Nick Bostrom, contends that the reality we exist within is in fact a simulation of extraordinary complexity, and we are just very cunningly scripted artificial intelligences within it.

What’s interesting is that John Tierney (for the NYT) seems more convinced of Bostrom’s theory than Bostrom himself. It’s a head-twistingly paradoxical piece of thinking, so much so that even George Dvorsky finds it makes his brain hurt – which makes me feel slightly better about being in the same situation.

But my main concern is this – if Bostrom and Tierney are correct, and this really is just a simulation, haven’t they now sent a rather obvious signal to the builders of the simulation that the inmates have seen behind the wizard’s curtain? What if the success of the simulation is dependent on our ignorance of it being one? But then, surely they’d have programmed against that contingency – code is law, after all … but that sounds like the arguments for the ineffability of a deity creating mankind with free will! Good grief … if anyone needs me, I’ll be slumped in the corner surrounded by Greg Egan novels and an empty bottle of gin.