Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

Intersection: Infinite Fun Space & Simulation Theory

In Iain Banks’ book Excession an advanced humanoid civilization has created and populated the galaxy with various artificial intelligences called Minds. In the universe of The Culture, which is articulated in ten books written by Banks, Minds have become so powerful that they are capable of creating entire simulated universes. These simulated universes are created for humans while they sleep, in “dream adventures” where they can play as pirates, knights, or other exciting roles with other sleepers. However, the other major role of simulated worlds is for the Minds themselves. The most fun a Mind can have is in something called Infinite Fun Space, where machines tinker with the creation of ‘mental’ universes. Infinite Fun Space is supposed to consist of “configurations of wonder and bliss even the simplest abstract of which the human-basic brain had no conceivable way of comprehending”. Furthermore, these worlds are compared to a drug that is “ultimately liberating, utterly enhancing, unadulterably beneficial… for the intellect of machines”. The Culture series is a utopian one, where most technologies are seen as beneficial to humanity. This itself is extraordinary, since pop culture is absolutely inundated with stories of technology run amuck – especially in relationship to simulated worlds.

Virtual realities have been around in modern popular culture for a long time, with The Matrix being the most enduring and classic example. In The Matrix, the machines are portrayed as the enemies of humanity, mankind merely being a power source by which they stay alive. It is interesting to note, that we never see the machines themselves having any fun, they seem to be merely interested in survival. It is perhaps worthy to speculate on whether they have subjective experiences or are just mindless automata. They have programs who are caretakers in the virtual world but the minds of the machine programmers are never really explored. We never see anything but programs and human minds in the matrix, the creators are notably absent. Then again, the matrix is seen as a prison, and why would you visit a prison for fun. The Matrix is a gnostic conception of simulated reality as a deception or prison created by a malevolent demiurge. In The Matrix, humanity is called to escape the “fake” world and to find the “real” world. Since The Matrix was released, it has been consistently been used in schools and undergraduate classrooms as an illustration of simulated realities.

Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford, wrote a paper in 2003 called Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?. The paper’s thesis is that it is theoretically possible that we will have sufficient computing power to run a universe simulation in the future. Obviously there are a whole set of assumptions here, such as that minds are capable of being represented digitally. Bostrom says that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation if 1) civilizations make it to an advanced-enough stage to run simulations AND 2) civilizations actually choose to run simulations. Obviously, time will tell if these two conditions are possible (either through our own development, or contact with other intelligences). Bostrom’s paper has been very influential to many modern day thinkers like Elon Musk. Musk, likes Bostrom, thinks the ramifications of living in a simulated world are negligible. If, in the future, it becomes likely that we are in a simulation, nothing about the world or the quality of our experience would change. Our minds would simply be embodied through higher-level computation rather than base-reality matter.

Elon Musk has been particularly captured by Bostrom’s concern about the future of AI. Bostrom and Musk think that there is a great danger in creating a “superintelligent” entity, which is the subject of Bostrom’s book Superintelligence. It is interesting to consider the relationship between AI and simulated realities; if a simulated mind is a manufactured mind, does the road to simulated realities necessarily lead through superintelligent GAI (General Artificial Intelligence)? It seems theoretically possible, if very unlikely, that one could sidestep AI at least partially in the quest for simulated realities. However, this begs further questions about the nature of the simulation such as: is the task of “hand coding” an entire simulated world infeasible without AI assistance? And would such a world require AI maintenance of some sort? It seems to me that it is logical, faster, and more efficient for AI to be developed before simulated realities. Not to mention that we are currently closer to AI than to simulating a world (not to mention universe).

There are many interesting intersections here: there’s the way that simulated realities are used in the popular imagination – as prisons, as fantasies, and as liberatory realms of mental exploration. It is interesting that simulated realities are often depicted as having some relationship with AI’s. Often, AI’s are the creators of such worlds, but they are not always depicted as participating in the worlds themselves. This may be due to the simulated realities being prisons or places that no one would like to spend any time. Such conceptions of the simulated world mirror contemporary feelings about AI, there is a lot of fear and a lot of hope surrounding what these technologies might bring. Both of these technologies seem likely to lie along the same trajectory, with AI arriving first and perhaps being the deciding factor about the nature of simulated realities. These issues parallel religious questions of how humanity relates to the divine (or that which is beyond human comprehension), how we relate to extraordinary states of being (such as mystical states), and what the final form humanity will take (as machines, in a different reality, both?).

DISCLAIMER: I have yet to finish all of The Culture novels, and it’s my understanding that a later novel, Surface Detail, is directly concerned with simulated realities. Ah well.