Inside the Matrix by Pamela L Gay

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We are pleased Dr. Gay consented to speculate in this article about the science behind creating a permanent singularity like the possible future presented in “For the Children” by Jamie Wahls. Well, science and space pirates.


Inside the Matrix

by Dr. Pamela L. Gay


Since the beginning of the computer era, people have been speculating that our reality might exist within a computer simulation. This idea was first popularized in 1956, by Isaac Asimov in The Last Question, and famously re-articulated in 1999’s Oscar-winning The Matrix.  Today, prominent thinkers, ranging from Neil Tyson to Elon Musk, are publicly stating that there are good odds that what we call reality is just a simulation. If you are like me, the idea that we are simulated souls living our lives according to complex software is not entirely comforting. Making things even more confusing is the idea that we have the potential to someday download ourselves into future computers. This seems to imply that we could become simulated people simulated in a simulated universe, which I think makes it simulations all the way down.

The nature of the universe as we know it makes this kind of a reality harder to create than sci-fi generally implies. In this issue, Jamie Wahls highlights one of the difficulties in “For the Children,” where Wahls notes the need for ever-increasing processing ability and storage as life replicates and expands outward across the simulated landscape. What is less discussed is the fragility of life in a memory core, and how the universe would try to kill the simulation, or at least cause a glitch in the matrix.

In his book, Calculating God, Robert J Sawyer imagines that all advanced lifeforms go through brief spacefaring periods, followed by retreat into computers. In describing what this means, he  identifies the need to place the computers in geologically stable areas, to protect them from pillaging, and to secure their long-term functionality. This too is too simplistic.

At the planetary scale, the simulators would require a physically safe location and a permanent energy source. On a planet like Earth, active plate tectonics are constantly (admittedly slowly) moving the surface of the planet. Sections of crustal plate get compressed, flexed, and even flipped as new mountains are created and old lands destroyed. The living nature of our world would have to be ended – the planet would have to die – in order for a permanently secure location to be created. This can be accomplished by cooling the planet (a process that ends the prospect of using geothermal energy) so that there are no longer plate tectonics. This process also eradicates the world’s magnetic field and makes its surface vulnerable to cosmic rays and a multitude of radioactive particles – particles that can disrupt chemical bonds and are extraordinarily hard to block.

While the problems of geological stability can be avoided by building simulators in space, this location still has radiation. It may be possible to very carefully build the simulator out of nonradioactive materials, and to enclose it in significant amounts of shielding. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics means there is always a nonzero chance of a disrupting particle getting through any practical depth of shielding. This is also where the problem of pirates comes in.

Unless you know for certain that there is no other life in the universe, you have to assume that in the fullness of time something is going to come along and find your simulator (or the planet it’s buried on). If your simulator is on a world, the shielding by definition can’t be bigger than the world, and you probably need to figure out how to make that planet-turned-simulator look like something no one will ever want to dig in or destroy. If your simulator is flying freely in space, it becomes more and more noticeable the larger it is. If life is anything like life as we know it, curiosity surrounding finding a giant flying something will cause the finder to figure out how to find a way in. This too has the potential to destroy the simulation.

Even ignoring the problem of pirates, there are the problems of living in an unstable universe. Stars explode, planets fall into the black holes, and protons might not even be stable.  All of these things could harm or destroy the simulator. As we imagine our future on the cloud, the best we can really imagine is a myriad of different systems, each playing out their own simulation until one by one they segmentation-fault away all memory of humanity.

The universe is a violent place, and human life as we know it has only been able to endure for tens of thousands of years. Prior lifeforms on our world went extinct in the face of catastrophic events, changes to the environment, disease, and competition from superior lifeforms.  It is hard to know how much longer our specific species can move forward before one of these factors, or something new, wipes us out. Nevertheless, from the surface of this world to the worlds we may someday migrate to, good old biological evolution may be our best way of saving humanity.


Dr. Pamela L. Gay is an astronomer, writer, and podcaster determined to inflict space on you via the internet. Escape is not possible: you will engage in science.


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