SIMULACRON-3: are we living in a computer simulation?

Are we living in a computer simulation? And, if so, how could we tell? This question became very popular in the last few years and has led to many articles, comments, and arguments. The simulation hypothesis which states that all of reality, including the Earth and the observable universe, could, in fact, be the result of a computer simulation is a hot topic of debate among philosophers, scientists, and SF writers.  Even the popular Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC) webcomic has helped clarify the issue, in a very popular strip. Greg Egan, the master of realistic SF, may have taken the matter to its ultimate consequences, with Permutation City and Instantiation, but the truth is that this question has been the subject of many books, including the famous Neuromancer, by William Gibson.

Still, to my knowledge, Simulacron-3, by Daniel Galouye, may have been the first SF book to tackle the issue head-on. For a book written more than half a century ago, the story is surprisingly modern and up-to-date. Not only the presentation of the simulated reality world is very convincing and the technology very believable, but it also turns out that the reasons why the simulated reality world (Simulacron-3) was created could be sold as a business plan for any ambitious startup today.

There is not much more that I can write about this book without depriving you of the pleasure of reading it, so let me just recommend that you get a copy from a website near you and take with you for the summer holidays.

The Fabric of Reality

The Fabric of Reality, a 1997 book by David Deutsch, is full of great ideas, most of them surprising and intriguing. The main argument is that explanations are the centerpiece of science and that four theories play an essential role in our understanding of the world: quantum theory, the theory of evolution, the theory of computation and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

You may raise a number of questions about these particular choices, such as why is the theory of relativity not there or why is the theory of evolution simply not a result of other theories in physics or even what makes epistemology to special. You will have to read the book to find out but the short answer is that not everything is physics and that theories at many levels are required to explain the world. Still, in physics, the most fundamental idea is quantum theory and it has profound impacts on our understanding of the universe. Perhaps the most significant impact comes from the fact that (according to Deutsch) what we know about quantum theory implies that we live in a multiverse. Each time a quantum phenomenon can conduct to more than one observable result, the universe splits into as many universes as the number of possible results, universes that exist simultaneously in the multiverse.

Although the scientific establishment views the multiverse theory with reservation, to say the least, to Deutsch, the multiverse is not just a theory, but the only possible explanation for what we know about quantum physics (he dismisses the Copenhagen interpretation as nonsense). Armed with these four theories, and the resulting conclusion that we live in a multiverse, Deutsch goes on to address thought-provoking questions, such as:

  • Is life a small thing at the scale of the universe or, on the contrary, is the most important thing on it?
  • Can we have free will, in a deterministic universe? And in the multiverse?
  • Do computers strictly more powerful than Turing machines exist, and how do they work?
  • Can mathematical proofs provide us with absolute certainties about specific mathematical statements?
  • Is time travel possible, at least in principle, either in the physical world or in a virtual reality simulator?
  • Will we (or our descendants, or some other species) eventually become gods, when we reach the Omega point?

The idea of the multiverse is required to answer most, if not all, of these questions. Deutsch is certainly not a parsimonious person when he uses universes to answer questions and to solve problems. The multiverse allows you to have free will, solves the paradoxes of time travel and makes quantum computers possible, among many other things. One example of the generous use of universes made by Deutsch is the following sentence:

When a quantum factorization engine is factorizing a 250-digit number, the number of interfering universes will be of the order of 10 to the 500. This staggeringly large number is the reason why Shor’s algorithm makes factorization tractable. I said that the algorithm requires only a few thousand arithmetic operations. I meant, of course, a few thousand operations in each universe that contributes to the answer. All those computations are performed in parallel, in different universes, and share their results through interference.

The fact that Deutsch’s arguments depend so heavily on the multiverse idea makes this book much more about the multiverse than about the other topics he addresses. After all, if the multiverse theory is wrong, many of Deutsch’s explanations collapse, interesting as they may be.

Still, the book is full of great ideas, makes for some interesting reading, and presents many interesting concepts, some of them further developed in other books by Deutsch, such as The Beginning of Infinity.

Black Mirror, a glimpse of the (near) future


If you didn’t yet watch any episodes of Black Mirror, a British series created by Charlie Brooker, go and fix that now. The 12 episodes of Black Mirror have been rated by The Wrap from “Good” to “Mind Blowing”, and they all cover the anticipated and non-anticipated consequences of new technologies.

According to the series creator, “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” 

The series analyses, sometimes in excruciating ways, how new technologies, such as social networks, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence, can lead to unexpected, if plausible, lifestyles, problems and challenges.

A review of Microsoft Hololens

By a kind invitation from Microsoft, I had the opportunity to experiment, from a user’s perspective, the new Microsoft Hololens. Basically, I was able to wear them for a while and to interact with a number of applications that were spread around a room.hololens

From the outside, the result is not very impressive, as the picture above shows. In a room, which was mostly empty (except for the other guests, wearing similar devices), you can see me wearing the lenses, raising my hand to pull-up a menu, using the menu-pull up gesture.

From the inside, things are considerably more interesting. During configuration, the software identifies the relevant features of the room, and creates an internal model of the space and of the furniture in it.

Applications, both 3D and 2D, can then be deployed in different spaces in the room, using a number of control gestures and menus. Your view of the applications is superimposed with the view of the room, leading to a semi-realistic impression of virtual reality, mixed with the “real” reality. You can move around the 3D holograms in the room (in this case an elephant, a mime and a globe, like the one below, among others).


You can also interact with them using a virtual pointing device (basically a mouse, controlled by your head movements). 2D applications, like video-streaming, appear as suspended screens (or screens lying on top of desks and tables) and can be controlled using the same method. Overall, the impression is very different from the one obtained using 3D Virtuall Reality googles, like Google Cardboard or Oculus Rift. For instance, in a conversation (pictured below) you would be seating in a chair, facing an hologram of your guest, possibly discussing some 3D object sitting between the two.


Overall, I was much more impressed with the possibilities of this technology than I was with Google glasses, which I tried a few years back. The quality of the holograms was quite good, and the integration with the real world quite convincing. The applications need to be developed, though.

On the minus side, the device is somewhat heavy and less than comfortable to wear for extended periods. This limitation could probably be addressed by future developments of the device.

Microsoft HoloLens merges the real and the virtual worlds

The possibility to superimpose the real physical world and the virtual world created by computers has been viewed, for a long time, as a technology looking for a killer application.

The fact is that, until now, the technology was incipient and the user experience less than perfect. Microsoft is trying to change that, with their new product, Microsoft HoloLens. As of April this year, Microsoft is shipping the pre-production version of HoloLens, for developers.

The basic idea is that, by using HoloLens, computer generated objects can be superimposed with actual physical objects. Instead of using the “desktop” metaphor, users will be able to deploy applications in actual physical space. Non-holographic applications run as floating virtual screens  that will stick to a specific point in the physical space or move with the user. Holographic enabled applications will let you to use the physical space for virtual objects as you would for physical objects. For instance, if you leave a report, say, on top of a desk, it will stay there until you pick it up.

hololensThe IEEE Spectrum report on the device, by Rod Furlan, provides some interesting additional information and gives the device a clear  “thumbs up”.

The HoloLens, a self-contained computer weighting 580 grams, is powered by a 32-bit Intel Atom processor and Microsoft’s custom Holographic Processing Unit (HPU).

The following YouTube video, made available by Microsoft, gives some idea of what the product may become, once sufficiently powerful applications are developed.

Image and video credits: Microsoft HoloLens website.

Pokemon Go: the first step in the path to Accelerando?

The recent release of Pokemon Go,  an augmented reality mobile game attracted much attention, and made the value of its parent company, Nintendo, raise by more than 14 billion dollars. Rarely has the release of a mobile game had so much impact in the media and the financial world.

In large part, this happened because the market (and the world) are expecting this to be the first of many applications that explore the possibilities of augmented reality, a technology that superimposes the perceptions of the real and the virtual world.

Pokemon Go players, instead of staying at home playing with their cellphones, walk around the real world, looking for little monsters that appear in more or less random locations. More advanced players meet in specific places, called gyms, to have their monsters fight each other. Pokemon Go brought augmented reality into the mainstream, and may indeed represent the first of many applications that merge the real and the virtual world. The game still has many limitations in what concerns the use of augmented reality. Exact physical location, below a few feet cannot be obtained, and the illusion is slightly less than perfect. Nonetheless, the game represents a significant usage of augmented reality, a potentially disruptive technology.

Charles Stross, in the novel Accelerando, imagines a society where the hero, Manfred Macx, is one of the first to live permanently in augmented reality, looking into the world through an always-on pair of digital glasses. The glasses integrate information from the real world and the always present web. This society provides just the starting point for the novel, which recounts the story of three generations of a family as the world goes into (and emerges out of) a technological singularity.



It is not difficult to imagine a future where digital glasses keep you informed of the name (and history, interests, and marital status) of anyone you meet in a party, where to go for your next appointment, or what are the last relevant news. Such an augmented reality world does not really require much more technology that what is available today, only the right applications and the right user interfaces.

Until we have Manfred’s glasses, we can use Pokemon Go to imagine what the fusion of real and artificial worlds will look like.

Left picture: cover of Accelerando

Right picture: The author, posing with an Oddish Pokemon monster, found in a remote town, in Portugal.