Whoa, Dude, Are We Inside a Computer Right Now?

Illustration By Julian Garcia
Two years ago, Rich Terrile appeared on Through the Wormhole, the Science Channel’s show about the mysteries of life and the universe. He was invited onto the program to discuss the theory that the human experience can be boiled down to something like an incredibly advanced, metaphysical version of The Sims.
It’s an idea that every college student with a gravity bong and The Matrix on DVD has thought of before, but Rich is a well-regarded scientist, the director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is currently writing an as-yet-untitled book about the subject, so we’re going to go ahead and take him seriously.
The essence of Rich’s theory is that a “programmer” from the future designed our reality to simulate the course of what the programmer considers to be ancient history—for whatever reason, maybe because he’s bored.
According to Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles roughly every two years, all of this will be theoretically possible in the future. Sooner or later, we’ll get to a place where simulating a few billion people—and making them believe they are sentient beings with the ability to control their own destinies—will be as easy as sending a stranger a picture of your genitals on your phone.
This hypothesis—versions of which have been kicked around for centuries—is becoming the trippy notion of the moment for philosophers, with people like Nick Bostrom, the director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, seriously considering the premise.
Until recently, the simulation argument hadn’t really attracted traditional researchers. That’s not to say he is the first scientist to predict our ability to run realistic simulations (among others, Ray Kurzweil did that in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines), but he is one of the first to argue we might already be living inside one. Rich has even gone one step further by attempting to prove his theories through physics, citing things like the observable pixelation of the tiniest matter and the eerie similarities between quantum mechanics, the mathematical rules that govern our universe, and the creation of video game environments.
Just think: Whenever you fuck up there could be the intergalactic version of an overweight 13-year-old Korean boy controlling you and screaming “Shit!” into an Xbox headset. It sort of takes the edge off things.