Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
--"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen
At our current rate of technological advancement--especially in the fields of computer science, artificial intelligence (AI), and video rendering--it may only be a matter of time before humans can simulate a virtual world that's indistinguishable from our present reality. In 1958, Pong was the pinnacle of video gaming. Now, anyone with a few hundred dollars to spare can use a virtual reality headset to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of a world with resolution so clear that the human eye can't perceive the difference between the virtual and the real. Our technological capacities continue to grow exponentially. Where artificial intelligence was once a work of fiction, corporations are now investing millions into AI research with growing success. Indeed, one day it may be possible to simulate a fully functioning human brain within a computer system.
Of course, any number of scenarios could prevent such a future. Not least of which are the looming climate crisis and the depletion of Earth's resources. But if we have any faith in our ability as a species to persist into the distant future, then we must consider the possibility that we will one day develop the necessary technology to simulate a virtual world replete with billions of thinking, feeling, autonomous beings--beings that wholly believe they are real and alive. If that is indeed possible, how can we be sure that we ourselves aren't living in a simulation?
It turns out there are many compelling reasons to believe that everything all around us--down to our beating hearts and deepest thoughts--is the product of a computer simulation run by a hyper-advanced civilization. Strange quirks of quantum mechanics like the famously confounding double-slit experiment (in which subatomic particles change their behavior under observation) might suggest that our simulated world conserves processing power by rendering only what is observable. The Planck length--the spatial limit at which our conventional understanding of gravity, space-time, and Newtonian motion falls apart--might be best understood as the limit of one pixel of our simulated reality. And certain laws of physics seem like they could have been programmed as hard-limits, such as the speed of light in a vacuum. Moreover, why can't I ever find the pens that I drop under my desk? And why does the leader of the free world more closely resemble a cartoon...