Does Hello Games' "No Man's Sky" Prove that Reality is a Simulation?
The foliage was a cascade of bright green and blue pastels waving playfully in the gusts of wind. The suns above shone so much light that the plants had to be nearly bleached of pigment so as to bounce off the vast majority of solar radiation back into the atmosphere. Too dark of a color, and they’d wilt. Too light, and they’d be unable to harvest energy for photosynthesis.
The lake blended into the edge of the jungle like a mangrove separating beach from ocean, but unlike the familiar tangle of trees and bushes, these were massive fern-like species mixed inside thick vines blooming with carnivorous bell-shaped vats waiting for an unfortunate victim. A victim like me.
A roar blasted out from maybe a half a click in the distance, echoing through the misleadingly serene landscape. Again, the beast let out a below, this time sounding dangerously closer -- must be more than one, which means there’s likely more than two, I thought.
Which meant it was time to GTFO.
I ran through the thickets as carefully as possible to avoid slipping into the botanical vats of acid, desperately trying not to make too much noise and alert whatever it was that hunted me. I checked my location in relation to my vessel -- about 300 more meters to go.
The jungle was ripped right in front of me as if the giant mammal simply tore open a curtain with its four elongated arms. For a second, we stared in utter surprise by each other’s presence. Time stopped. I could feel the air harden as all sounds faded in an everlasting echo. Then the quadro-predasapien gargantua (discovered by: C.Davis389) inhaled through the grit of its fangs and shattered the air with a deafening blast of pure animal rage. And then...
I re-spawned back at Beta Cluster ii’s galactic station (think, “gas station next to mile-marker 73 somewhere in the US,” except it's in outer space) and realized all my best loot was still back at the spot where my dead body was being eaten by freakishly massive animals. Damn it.
Welcome to outer space. Er, rather, welcome to an alternate galaxy.
This alternate galaxy’s name is No Man’s Sky, a video game created by the daring team, Hello Games, which has quickly gained the reputation of being the most uniquely constructed game we’ve ever seen.
While my story above is just my own imagined and thus fabricated experience on one of their theoretically possible variations of an exoplanet, it still gives way to the overall feeling one might encounter while interacting within a galaxy that will take approximately 5 billion years to fully explore.
A feeling of pure infantile wonder.
How is it a game could encompass 5b years worth of planets and star clusters to explore? “Maths,” Sean Murray says with a childlike twinkle in his eye. Sean’s had dozens of talks, interviews and demos with his game, as any lead designer should with something as massive and intriguing as his team has created. What makes Sean and Hello Games’ star-child so interesting though isn’t its sheer sense of scale and freedom but rather the way it came into our reality, via mathematical equations and procedural generation.
A good example of how exactly a computer can know precisely what should be where and when despite not rendering anything until the moment you show up at that spot to be run down by giant, four-armed monkeys is the most basic of functions: a sine wave.
A sine wave runs in a distinct, repeatable and predictable pattern, meaning that if you are at Y-coordinate y, the equation will know where X-coordinate x is -- pretty rudimentary, as the definition of an equation dictates the power of precision and predictability to the mathematician. You know, it's not like at one moment 1+1=2 then the next 1+1=4. Math just doesn't work that way.
So when exploring a sine wave in its 2D space-time, the computer doesn’t have to render infinity onto its processing chip. Instead, as you trace up and down the wave’s peaks and troughs, the computer renders a given amount of information in front of and behind you, which creates the illusion of a congruous experience. As you keep tracing, the world of the sine wave keeps generating ad infinitum, and if, say, there are different colored dots of different sizes along the wave, the computer will know which dot is where at all times even if they’re not rendered.
All of that thanks to following the rules of one equation from which the sine wave world is created.
This concept isn’t a new one. In fact, one could argue the equation theory of existence predates the past two and a half millennium of scientific education. Pythagoras has been affiliated with this same idea, that the obscure omniscience of all existence (i.e., GOD) created the equations that in turn created the universe and everything within it. And whether or not this was an idea stemming directly from Pythagoras’ work, the concept of the almighty equation remains an important pillar in modern mathematics and scientific philosophies.
But can just a couple of elegant equations create, well, everything? And if so, what are the implications of such mathematics?
Enter the supercomputer. No, I’m not talking about those at universities or other institutions of respected scientific endeavors. I’m talking about video game consoles.
At this point in the console wars, the PS4 boasts processing power that fifteen years ago was literally impossible for even the strongest of gaming PCs to match, but of course gaming PCs today are mind-mindbogglingly stronger than the PS4. As computers grow more robust in the demand for increasingly life-like video games, it enables a company like Hello Games to create a procedurally generated 3D galaxy that has always been possible but not plausible due to computational limitations. Until today, obviously.
The result of creating the right equations that harness the power of supercomputers that in turn allows for an entire galaxy to flicker on is No Man’s Sky, wherein this one galaxy would take more time to explore than the sun has before it goes super nova.
Sure, their galaxy is incredibly less complex than our reality, and Sean Murray is the first to point this fact out. Just because Hello Games has found the right set of equations to produce a galaxy filled with exotic environments, plants and animals complete with its own set of physical and mathematical rules, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to create even one planet full of intelligent life as complex as Earth.
So far, I’ve only mentioned consumer-grade technology that is able to procedurally generate a unique, fully explorable galaxy using mathematics as the basis of its existence. What if we took this concept and shoved it into the world’s most advanced supercomputers? Could we actually create a new, living universe through digital synthesis?
It turns out that the most advanced computer simulation of a universe is... Well, it’s our own Universe.
The Illustris Simulation took roughly three months of calculation running 8,000 parallel-operating CPUs. The result is still only a portion of what our Universe actually is -- the simulation starts 12 million years after the Big Bang. Furthermore, this simulation only takes into account what macro scales of the Universe look like as it evolved over the years, examining only galactic-level structures and nothing as complex as planetary systems, let alone microcosms of life evolving on exoplanets.
And for a species as young as ours, we really can’t fully account for everything that once was and will be because our mathematics are limited in our capacity to understand things on our human scale. In other words, we would need to know what “god” knows in order to recreate what a god would create in the first place.
Hello Games gives us a fictional, micro step forward in this exploration of what are essentially alternate universes, but we still lack the largely complex understandings of complex sentience and lifeforms necessary in order to create them synthetically -- there just isn’t an elegant equation that sums up all of our biological, neurological and philosophical possibilities.
This, however, only tells us that we cannot recreate our Universe nor create a wholly intact alternate universe in the utmost full complexity that we, humans, would require in order to spontaneously evolve into what we are today. What it does not tell us is whether or not we are already this theoretical computer program running billions of years in the future under the microscope of our evolved descendants.
At least, that’s what Nick Bostrom believes to be the case.
To skip down Mr. Bostrom’s already short thesis to its conclusion, we come to three postulations about the simulation theory.
(1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a post-human stage is very close to zero. (2) The fraction of post-human civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero. (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one. (Section iiv: Conclusion, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”, Nick Bostrom)
The first two points address the possibility of whether or not our type of civilization reaches astronomical existence and whether or not such a posthuman civilization would be interested in recreating the past via computer simulation. Depending upon the likelihood of points 1 and 2 becoming true, 3 becomes inevitable.
In other words, we as a species either die off before we become astro-humans, or we do evolve but simply decide not to recreate our history via computer simulation.
Even then, when we’re star-inhabitants freely transmuting, transporting through and reshaping space-time, is it possible to know everything? To know exactly what governing equations are necessary to create YOU, reading this article in utter confusion right now at this moment in space-time?
I don’t know. If I did, I would certainly be entertaining my thoughts in different ways rather than confusing a couple thousand readers.
However, if I may be so bold to say, there could exist an alternate (2) to Mr. Bostrom’s proposed conclusion. We are a curious species hell-bent not on just knowing everything about anything, but we also very much enjoy playing with our ideas within increasingly complex technological spaces.
Assuming we did gain enough knowledge about our Universe to the point where we could push a button and make it regrow in simulated space, who’s to say that we wouldn’t push that button to see what else could be created rather than just looking back at our past?
After all, for an entire civilization to grow to that point, wouldn’t we already know how we came about? What would be the point in looking backwards if we probably already can predict the outcome of the Universe’s existence (assuming, of course, it hadn’t bled out by that point in time, as many astrophysicists believe to be the case)?
I think that if we are the product of a simulation experiment, it's not as cynical or oppressive as one likes to imagine in a cheesy made-for-Syfy-movie. Again, whatever intelligence exists at that point already knows everything they’d need to know about, well, everything. So what’s the point in building a new universe out of the intent to study it, especially one that recounts a past they most likely already know enough of?
Well, why are millions of people drooling over the development of No Man’s Sky? Because we really want to play in that sandbox. We really want to see what could exist in alternate realities with different physical and biological laws. We think it’d be fun.
Think about it. What is more interesting than reality, that which poetically explains our life experiences in the form of allegories? Fiction. Often times fiction can be more real than nonfictional stories -- they’re more powerful, more moving and inspirational. So who’s to say we will lose that curious, playful bug by the time we can create and travel through wormholes?
If Sean Murray and his team at Hello Games accidentally created the precursor to Skynet... Well, that sucks.
However, if No Man’s Sky is the inevitable byproduct of intelligent technology and our innate playful attitude, maybe what we’re seeing is the first steps toward a level of sentience that really can be set into motion with the flick of a switch, something that is created rather than recreated or copied. Something that is meant to inspire us, give us awe and fulfill our innate desire to keep exploring simply for the sake of exploring.
And if the latter turns out to be true, and we are a simulated existence, we really aren’t simulated so much as we are created in the truest sense. "God" would just be a macrochip (so to speak) instead of an old man with white whiskers up in the clouds, something that could contain the wealth and knowledge of an entire universe. And, on top of all of that, it would prove that whatever made our program does care about us in the same way most of us will care about the little critters running around the billions of billions of billions of planets in No Man’s Sky.
We wouldn't be batteries. We wouldn’t even be lab rats.
We’d be labradors.