50–50 Chance We Live in a Simulation

Gauging whether or not we dwell inside someone else’s computer may come down to advanced AI research—or measurements at the frontiers of cosmology.

Ever since Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford wrote a seminal paper about the simulation argument in 2003, philosophers, physicists, technologists and, yes, comedians have been grappling with the idea of our reality being a simulacrum. Some have tried to identify ways in which we can discern if we are simulated beings. Others have attempted to calculate the chance of us being virtual entities. Now a new analysis shows that the odds that we are living in base reality—meaning an existence that is not simulated—are pretty much even. But the study also demonstrates that if humans were to ever develop the ability to simulate conscious beings, the chances would overwhelmingly tilt in favor of us, too, being virtual denizens inside someone else’s computer. (A caveat to that conclusion is that there is little agreement about what the term “consciousness” means, let alone how one might go about simulating it.)

To get a better handle on Bostrom’s simulation argument, astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University decided to resort to Bayesian reasoning. This type of analysis uses Bayes’s theorem, named after Thomas Bayes, an 18th-century English statistician and minister. Bayesian analysis allows one to calculate the odds of something happening (called the “posterior” probability) by first making assumptions about the thing being analyzed (assigning it a “prior” probability).

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