In the movie “The Matrix,” a man discovers that the world he’s known forever isn’t real. Instead, it’s a simulation of the world, programmed by robots and used to enslave humans as a food source.
It’s just a movie, but it’s grounded in some real science.
Scientists and philosophers have argued for years about whether reality itself is actually a giant computer simulation.
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s got serious backers. Tesla founder and technologist Elon Musk argued that there was a one in a billion chance we aren’t living in a giant computer simulation.
“The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation, I think, is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong—two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were,” Musk said at a conference. “Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson, science popularizer and theoretical physicist, was a little less certain. He gave us only about 50 percent chance of living in a virtual world, calling it “very likely” in a 2016 panel discussion.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom was a key figure behind the modern theory of reality-as-giant-video-game. His 2003 report, aptly titled “Are you living in a computer simulation?,” argued that as computer power increased, users would almost certainly decide to render simulations of their pasts.
Whether you find such a possibility frightening or comforting, researchers at the University of Oxford say they’ve figured out the answer.
Physicists Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhi of Oxford published a new study in the journal Science Advances that found the idea impossible — not just practically, but in principle too.
The researchers were trying to study something called the quantum Hall effect, an anomaly that occurs in metals. It’s some heavy science, but the important thing is that the researchers found that to model even a small portion of this effect would require more computing power than exists in all of the atoms in the universe.
The simulation became twice as complex each time the number of particles grew. Because of that, the computing power needed to simulate it would just increase and increase until all the power in the world was being used just to simulate that one interaction. There’s no way it could then be used to simulate everything else in existence.
The finding throws a bucket of cold water on the idea and, for many, effectively kills the possibility of the universe just being a big virtual experiment. For now, “The Matrix” remains just a movie.