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Why I Hope the Universe Really Is a Giant Computer Simulation

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It was recently announced, by actual physicists with degrees and jobs, that there is evidence the universe might be a giant computer simulation.

Not only that - but they now think they can test for sure whether or not it is, quite soon.

This would clearly be excellent news.

Before we get onto why I believe that, let's dip our toes into the science. Or, rather, philosophy. For as it turns out, the idea of the Matrix-Made-Real (aka The Digiverse, aka The Hyper-Global Compu Mega Net) stems not from the world of sci-fi, or indeed sci-sci, but instead a rather simple thought experiment, which goes something like this:

"We can already create simulations of small universes. If it is possible to create an identical simulation of a universe the size of our own, we will eventually do it. Since are probably not alone in this own vast, unknowable universe, it's likely already been done. If so, it's probably being done all the time. If so, again, the number of simulations would necessarily be vastly bigger than the one true universe from which they all originate. Therefore, statistically we probably live in one of the simulations."

... which is all very speculative and pleasant. But now scientists have evidence there's more to it than that. Explaining exactly what they've found is tricky, but it essentially has something to do with finding similar built-in limits for the energies of various cosmic waves in both the simulations and the world as it exists. Sort of like looking really closely at atoms through a microscope, and finding little Apple logos on them.

Now, over at HuffPost UK Tech this idea has proven to be something of a sensation. Our two posts on the news have now been shared more than 100,000 times on Facebook, have received thousands of comments and driven our Google ranking absolutely bonkers, making it by some margin among our most popular topics of the year.

But amid all the enthusiasm, scepticism and denial that greeted the news, one reaction above all seemed to be repeated most often: "this is amazing - but I hope it isn't true".

This is, I believe, the wrong attitude.

For one thing, discovering the universe was a computer would also mean the end of death, since there would also be no life of which it would be worth speaking. This is a significant improvement on life as we find it today.

Secondly, in this model of the world, the odds of cosmic programmer or, if you like, "God", actually existing go up dramatically.

Yes, in our cold, random existence, the idea of a loving deity seems increasingly remote. But in a simulation universe it would be indisputable that someone had to get a coffee, hammer at the keyboard and press "run".

Admittedly this is more likely to be some strange, alien nerd with a trans-existential Commodore 64, and not the bearded deity we usually imagine, but it's still a comforting thought.

The birth of God and the death of death? Not bad so far. Here are some other benefits to the universe as computer:

  • If we live in a simulation, we can also create one - and that opens up the possibility of a really excellent version of Grand Theft Spaceship hitting the market in about 600 years.
  • A computer can be rebooted. So if we destroy the world, it's possible that our cosmic developer could make a few edits and run the whole thing again without Hitler, asteroids and Donald Trump. Again, this is fine news.
  • There would suddenly be no need to remake the Matrix films in 10 years or so, which is otherwise almost certainly going to happen.

True, discovering that the universe is a simulation would also create some problems. But I think most of these can be carefully worked around, dealt with or - at worst - ignored.

Would it make life pointless? I don't think so. Day to day our perception of life wouldn't change. We would pay our taxes. We would fall in love. We'd even still buy iPads. We'd feel silly about it. But we'd do it.

On a sinister level, many would fear that living in a computer would open up the possibility of a vast digital virus wiping out all of existence in an instant. Other more prosaic issues - like somebody in our creator's universe tripping on the power plug, forgetting to pay their electricity bill or accidentally pressing "delete" instead of "save" - would also be concerns.

But in the context of the ridiculous number of ways in which our world could end already, these are pretty quick and clean ways of it happening. Plus, we wouldn't know about it anyway if it did occur. Once again, this is a bonus when all things are considered.

Others have also expressed their fear that in discovering our universe really was a computer, our existence would lose its mystery, its majesty and its complexity.

It is with this that I take particular exception.

Our universe as it stands now is a random, dark and complex place, filled with unknowns and chance. For all the efforts by world religions and the more dogmatic type of scientist, there remain no answers as to why we exist, when we will die and the mechanisms by which we came to be. Our best guess, currently, is that we are the random outcome of a physical fluke and a subsequent 13 billion years of cosmic pinball.

But let us suppose, for a moment, that we are both all those things and more. That we are the random outcome of chance, but also the newest link in a wide network of digital creators, each realising their own technologies to the point where they can take part in an act of supreme artistic wonder. That we aren't just the work of a distant, invisible creator - but also their inheritors, and that our destiny isn't just to survive as long as we can in the wastes of deep space, but to spark new forms of matter and life into being.

This would clearly be very cool. And given the trajectory of modern technology, eventually commercially available in app form.

So yes, we may be living in a computer. Our lives may be played out on a mainframe and not the universe we thought we knew. It is even possible that somewhere outside our matrix Keanu Reeves is fighting to wake us up for some porridge and certain death.

But if we are? Like all of science, from evolution to quantum theory, I believe the knowledge would add value to our lives, not subtract meaning from it.

That said, next time you turn off your Xbox, spare a thought for those inside. You never know - billions of tiny lives might depend on it.