Me in New Scientist on Sims

New Scientist quotes me on the simulation argument:

Although we are unlikely to get proof, we might find some hints about our reality. “I think it might be feasible to get evidence that would at least give weak clues,” says Bostrom.

Economist Robin Hanson of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, is not so sure. If we did find anything out, the operators could just rewind everything back to a point where the clue could be erased. “We won’t ever notice if they don’t want us to,” Hanson says. Anyway, seeking the truth might even be asking for trouble. We could be accused of ruining our creators’ fun and cause them to pull the plug.

Hanson has a slightly different take on the argument. “Small simulations should be far more numerous than large ones,” he says. That’s why he thinks it is far more likely that he lives in a simulation where he is the only conscious, interesting being. In other words, everyone else is an extra: a zombie, if you will. However, he would have no way of knowing, which brings us back to Descartes.

The reporter gets this a bit wrong. If I’m in simulation, I’m more likely to be in a small than a big simluation, but that is not to say I’d be “the only conscious, interesting being.” I’d guess most small simulations with any conscious beings have more than one – humans are social, and most of the interesting things to simulate about humans require more than one of them.

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  • > “We won’t ever notice if they don’t want us to,” Hanson says.

    And is this true with probability 1?

    • Many video games disallow roll-back. Disallowing seems to make the game more interesting for participants.

  • Doug


    Do you ever consider that you’re one of the first prominent people in human history to talk about sims? Also consider that in the states of the future where the number of sims is very large that their importance to (post-)human society is probably very high? That would make you a very important historical figure, possibly more important than anyone else from our era.

    Even for non-historical reasons, being one of the earliest people to actively estimate and evaluate the possibility of being a sim would make your sims fantastic software diagnostic tools. If I have a robust sim program and run 20,000 copies of Robin Hanson and none of them find explicit evidence of being simulated then that probably indicates high simulation software quality and robustness.

    • John Maxwell IV

      And just as regular folks today are reluctant to read the actual words and correspondence of revered ancient philosophers, it seems unlikely that many future sims will have the time or inclination to read what is written by one of Robin’s lowly blog commenters…

    • Anonymous

      “Also consider that in the states of the future where the number of sims is very large that their importance to (post-)human society is probably very high? That would make you a very important historical figure, possibly more important than anyone else from our era.”


    • anonymous

      What’s the difference between ass kissing and brown nosing?
      Depth perception.

  • Michael Rosefield

    If there are ‘roll-backs’, what of the conscious experiences engendered by those aborted scenarios? These correspond to parallel realities, and the minds within represent a broken continuity. If, anywhere in all of reality, the trajectory of that continuity can be found, then the inhabitants will not experience a roll-back or a cessation of simulation.

    It’s things like that that lead me to believe that we do not live within fixed ontologies, but all consistent ontologies at once.

    • nazgulnarsil

      Do you mean a tegmark universe?

  • The best evidence against me being one of the conscious sims in a small sim is that my life is not dramatic enough to interest an observer 🙂

    • Erisiantaoist

      I’ve thought about that, too–I have much stronger evidence than Hanson, Yudkowsky, et. al. that I’m not living in a simulation. Unfortunately for them, even if they attempted to verify my sentience by extended conversation; the longer they talked to me, the more interesting/important they’d make me.

  • tom

    This totally changes My Dinner with Andre for me. Are the George Mason econ lunches like that? Do you suspect that those of you there may be the only conscious beings?

  • More small simulations, yes, but the big ones have more players, no? So Pr conditional on being in some simulation is unknown, right?

    Seems the best parallel is current games; the more open-ended the game (eg Second Life), the larger the simulations. The more restricted the game (eg Tetris), the smaller the simulations. Our earth appears to be pretty open-ended in terms of moves (if not of capabilities).

  • mjgeddes

    I may have caught the sim masters at it. I’ve mentioned that there’s a big statistical spike for the number ’27’ popping up everywhere. It’s a universal joke and/or a big ‘easter egg’ in our program. There’s a definite on-going danger talking about this, but no one believes me yet, perhaps that’s why the sim hasn’t been shut down? As just one bizarre example, why have so many rock stars died at the age of 27, all under mysterious circumstances?

    The Forever 27 Club

    • @mjgeddes: Availability bias.

      Google Race:
      “26 reasons” 139,000 hits
      “27 reasons” 76,000 hits
      “28 reasons” 1,210,000 hits

      • Alrenous

        “66 reasons” 269,000,000 hits.

    • Konkvistador

      I usually find your comments likeable and noteworthy, but I don’t really see a reason why I should take this more seriously than say 23? Or am I missing the joke here?

      • mjgeddes

        I’m totally serious. The real year is 2101, and the real original Robin recently turned 142. I’m his psychiatrist and I’ve been running this em simulation of all the original folks connected with AI – it’s a ‘software diagnostic’ sim for the purposes of verifying friendliness of the final AGI design. Nah, just kidding 😉

        But how do we know it’s not true? Pick three items of very high scientific significance.
        (1) The number of days it takes the moon to orbit the Earth.
        (2) The number of bones in the human hand,
        (3) The circumference of the LHC tunnel (km).
        Look up the answers on wikipedia. I kid you not. The ’27’ does look eerily like an Easter egg in a simulation….

  • djg

    I’ve often thought that trying to build a quantum computer is a good test of the simulation hypothesis. Sure, you’ll never disprove every potential simulation, but you’ll at least constrain the parameter space.

    At the very least, not being able to build a quantum computer could be an interesting datum in the discussion.

  • AlephNeil

    Some intriguing suggestions from Wittgenstein:

    418. Is my having consciousness a fact of experience?–But doesn’t one say that a man has consciousness, and that a tree or a stone does not?–What would it be like if it were otherwise?–Would human beings all be unconscious?–No; not in the ordinary sense of the word. But I, for instance, should not have consciousness–as I now in fact have it.

    419. In what circumstances shall I say that a tribe has a chief? And the chief must surely have consciousness. Surely we can’t have a chief without consciousness!

    420. But can’t I imagine that the people around me are automata, lack consciousness, even though they behave in the same way as usual?–If I imagine it now–alone in my room–I see people with fixed looks (as in a trance) going about their business–the idea is perhaps a little uncanny. But just try to keep hold of this idea in the midst of your ordinary intercourse with others, in the street, say! Say to yourself, for example: “The children over there are mere automata; all their liveliness is mere automatism.” And you will either find these words becoming quite meaningless; or you will produce in yourself some kind of uncanny feeling, or something of the sort.

    Seeing a living human being as an automaton is analogous to seeing one figure as a limiting case or variant of another; the cross-pieces of a window as a swastika, for example.

  • Michael Wengler

    Robin, have you worked with simulations? My own experience with them suggests it is much more of an open question whether the being simulated will ever have consciousness. ESPECIALLY since we are essentially clueless about where our own consciousness comes from.

    In a sim, you tend to build in an 1) approximation of the rules that 2) you know about. Consider the lowly neuron, we know it fires in a randomish way with increasing rate under some circumstance, with decreasing rate under other circumstances. In the sim, do we just put in the fixed rates? Do we use a random number generator to populate a randomish variation which we think has some of the same statistics as the real neurons?

    The problem is that what seems randomish may, and often does, reflect some more underlying rules. What if that randomish variation is not random at all, or not completely random, but rather is part of some mechanism associated with consciousness? We believe consciousness is weakly connected to the brain. We know we can focus our consciousness on some things the brain is dealing with, the text box on the screen in front of me, the part of my brain holding these ideas and transforming them to language. What if that wandering weak focus is mediated through some mechanism that shows up, in our state of ignorance, as randomish variations in neuronal firing rates? Then our sim would MISS this entirely.

    As with any complex functioning system, it is much easier to build something that doesn’t work than something that does. The naive engine builder puts all the pieces together and goes to fire up the engine, and it won’t even rotate forget-about firing up. The programmer is constantly building something that doesn’t work and then working hard to figure out why it doesn’t work.

    I realize I am sounding just pessimistic. Of course work should go forward on this, and will anyway as coding increasingly complex processors is one of the best ways to create valuable capital these days (in addition to being unbelievably fun). But I would expect brain sims to “go wrong” in a lot of ways for a long time. And that consciousness with shifting focus and motivation and humor and insignt and the ability to invent and triage inventions… I wouldn’t expect that to show up in the sims until somewhere between pretty late in the game and never.

    When I first started forming my thoughts about sims, I recognized two things. 1) in a simulation of a nuclear explosion, nothing is destroyed, no energy is released. It is gigantically different from an actual nuclear explosion. 2) We already simulate people. In Vice City, I shoot cops and passing civilians all the time. The sims of people are way simpler that real people and I think beyond reasonable doubt they have no more consciousness than do the cars or the buildings in Vice City. Does consciousness just pop in by magic at some point as we make the sim more complex? Or do we actually have to understand how consiousness works, and put the necessary physics to support it into our sim, whereas we would currently just use random number generators which reflect not the physics, but our ignorance of the physics? Having worked hard to get things to work, I am pretty sure it is the latter. We will not have conscious sims until we have some idea how consciousness works, and is connected wtih brains and neurons.