Could the oceans, the stars, and everything else in our universe be an unimaginably complex ruse? A team of scientists at the University of Washington has devised experiments to test whether humanity is living in a Matrix-like computer simulation being run by supercomputers developed by future humans.
It's an idea put forth by philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003, and is based on the assumption that humanity will continue to improve its computing power far into the future—so much so that computers will be able to create a perceived reality with life in it. That life, Bostrom suggests, could be us and everything else in the universe.
Today's computers can perform simple simulations—but if humanity's power keeps improving, those simulations will improve along with it. At some point in the far future, someone will want to run an ancestor simulation, and that simulation could be our current world and universe, Bostrom posits.
Martin Savage, a nuclear physicist at the university, says there may be a way of proving whether Bostrom is right: Even the most advanced, undeveloped supercomputers won't have infinite computing power, and would have to essentially "cheat" to render some of the most complex parts of the universe. Savage says one of those parts could be cosmic rays, the seemingly random, very high-energy particles that make their way around outer space. If researchers can notice a pattern, it might be a sign that we're living in the Matrix.
"If we ourselves are a simulation, that simulation will be done with finite resources," he says. "We could look at the behavior of ultra high energy cosmic rays and see if they have a set of preferred directions, which wouldn't prove we're in a simulation, but it would be consistent with that fact."
In the movie The Matrix, highly-advanced machines create an imaginary world—Earth, where humans believe they live. In the movie, humans are actually hooked up to machines that leach their body heat as an energy source.
Savage himself is performing a set of computer simulations on subatomic particles using the known laws of nature. As computing power increases, those simulations will get more sophisticated to include different elements. One day far in the future, someone could create a computer that uses all the known laws of physics to essentially recreate history, he says.
"No one is simulating complete human beings today, but we're simulating clusters of atoms or molecules. If we have enough computing power, we'll be able to simulate our history, our evolution," he says. "If we simulate a complete universe, it will have simulated life, and that simulated life will be performing its own simulations."
Savage says, in fact, that "one of the most likely scenarios" is that we are a simulation. "If humans get to the point where they ever have enough resources to simulate ourselves, it is completely plausible that we're simulations," he says.
Either way, we won't know for a while: Some scientists are already looking at cosmic rays, but the data they're getting back isn't sophisticated enough to make a decision one way or another. And we are untold centuries away from being able to run a simulation of ourselves, Savage says.
So what happens if someone kicks the cord out of the supercomputer?
"I've got no idea—but with the simulations we do today, if we don't like what we're seeing, if they contain a fault, we can just stop it," he says. "Even if we find out we're living in a simulation, it's not going to impact anyone's day to day life. But it's going to disturb a whole lot of people."
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.