The Universe as we know it could be in big trouble. I have reported before on situations where our universe may be changing beyond the realms of “normal” physics, but the “heat death problem” could be a physical situation where the Universe will eventually expand so far that all energy will dissipate and be lost. Thermodynamics will eventually catch up with all the stars in the cosmos, ensuring they extinguish, all energy ebbing away into frozen space. Even the last of the supermassive black holes will evaporate after 10150 years. What’s left then? Well… nothing. So the question is: if a sufficiently advanced incarnation of the human race can beat the increasing entropy of the cosmos, can the future “us” continue to live beyond the heat death? Some rather philosophical ideas have come to light, including the creation of a virtual universe…
I’ve often wondered about this question: Is our universe real? Real as in, physically there. If you think about it, it isn’t perhaps such a silly question. This idea is by no means new, just look at some of the Hollywood movies over the past couple of decades: Tron, Lawnmower Man, The Matrix, to name three that come to mind – all tackle the full-emersion of humans in some sort of machine, whether they knew about it or not. Is it so hard to think that all our physical experience of the “universe” we believe to be “real” could actually be some virtual embodiment of a sufficiently advanced supercomputer?
In 2006 IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) and Georgia Tech (Atlanta) announced they had demonstrated the first silicon-based chip able to carry out operations at frequencies above 500 GHz. Although this technology has no practical use in a home computer, after all, this was just one single transistor; it demonstrates the huge advancement that current-day computing technology is undergoing. New techniques and new materials are constantly being developed, testing the validity of Moore’s Law which predicts that the number of transistors built into an integrated circuit board will double every 18 months. Although we are below this, there is a strong upward trend and it is showing little sign of slowing.
So how many transistors will be built into the chips of the future? How fast will these transistors operate? In ten years time, the computing power of today will be miniscule when we look back on it. After all, 12 years ago, my first “serious” PC ran at 233MHz. Now I’m typing on a machine with a modest processor running at 1.5GHz – that’s in excess of a six-fold speed increase.
So what of computers 20, 50, 100 or even 1000 years from now? With the possibility of quantum computing there seems to be little limiting this advancement.
What I am trying to demonstrate is that a sufficiently advanced intelligence should conceivably be able to build computers with the power to simulate whole universes. Simulating each and every movement of particles, energy and dimensions. Why wouldn’t it be possible to create a “fully immersed” virtual reality where our consciousness is a product of an advanced supercomputer, providing us with the “physical reality” we observe?
In a publication by Clément Vidal from the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition research group (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), the philosopher explores the possibilities for building a complete simulation of our universe. Artificial life, or ALife as Vidal calls it, would need to simulate all aspects of a universe, and if we were to simulate our universe, we ourselves (including the biological, physical and cultural factors) would need to be worked in. If this can be achieved by a sufficiently advanced computer, then are we are already inside a universe operated by an advanced intelligence?
Vidal states that the biggest shortfall of this theory is that if we were already inside a simulation, then where are the simulations “bugs”? Surely even a system as complex as a universal simulation will have errors in the “code”. If I were to take a shot at this theory, I believe the bugs may manifest themselves as the oddities we cannot explain with science. If the “code” is science (in this case “physics”), could something that defies physics be interpreted as a bug?
A computer code sets out some hard and fast rules about what a computer should do. The code tells the hardware to compute a mathematical interpretation of a “real life” subject – this is the essence of a simulation, to model something that is real. Perhaps the physics of our universe that we interpret to be physical is the code behind the simulation? The bugs in the code suddenly become apparent – singularities, black holes, quantum symmetry, strings, and a vast number of scenarios we simply haven’t understood yet. Could these be bugs or just complex subroutines of the code we are not supposed to understand?
I think the jury is out on whether we are actually within a simulation or not, and I believe the discussion will remain deeply philosophical and speculative for now.
But the universe will face a rather dull and quiet fate should it continue to expand at its current rate. Projected to occur when the most massive of cosmic bodies evaporate all their energy into frozen space, in 10150 years, our universe will effectively die, gradually cooling so much that quantum motion will be impossible. Energy will only exist as photons, passing lonely through a vast and empty universe. 10150 years signifies the point at which even the supermassive black holes (SMBHs) have devoured all available matter and have evaporated away. The death of the universe to a long, drawn out heat death makes for depressing, but captivating reading.
So how would our advanced successors, or any highly intelligent life surviving beyond 10150 years ever hope to eek out a life in a universe at close-to-maximum entropy?
According to Vidal, artificial cosmogenesis will be key to an advanced civilizations survival. Far before the last black holes disappear forever, plans should be afoot to find a way to harness (and occupy) black holes. Many publications cite black holes as a “gateway” into another universe. If this is to be the case, we currently have countless universes to choose from. What’s more, each universe beyond the black hole gateway will likely have different characteristics to choose from – physical laws will be different. Perhaps future cultures will be able to escape the impending heat death of our universe to slip into another, younger universe with similar physical properties of our own.
Whether advanced civilizations will need to create a virtual reality universe, or find another, physical universe inside a black hole, this is something we will not need to worry about for a long, long time…
Source: “The Ultimate Future of Artificial Life: Towards Artificial Cosmogenesis“, arXiv:0803.1087v1