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Note: this is about the virtualization of reality, not the virtualization of physical software systems. Regardless of what you thought it would be about, read on ;-)
I think there is a fundamental problem with the idea of living in a simulated world. Yes, it all looked nice and consistent in "The matrix" (at least until you had a déjà vu), but the picture begins to not make sense if we run the simulation for a while. Soon enough the inhabitants of the simulated world will get bored!
First of all, let us examine the possible scenarios in which a simulated world is created:
- Student's experiment - people get different assignments in universities, one thinks "hey, why not make a simulated world?!". The person has enough competence to make it work, by defining a few basic rules of interaction, which are underneath every process in the simulated world. Such a world is generated from scratch. We can be living in such a world.
- The port of an aware omnignostic cvilization - a civilization that has progressed far enough to be able to formally prove that they know everything there is to know about the universe. They decided to transcend into a different reality, a simulated one. Why? If "because we can" is not a satisfying answer, perhaps it has something to do with using less physical space or saving energy. [in any case, their rationale is outside the scope of this article]
If there are some other scenarios, please let me know. If you disagree with the explanations provided for the cases above, that does not make a difference at the moment.
Let me get back to one of the keywords in the title - limitation.
Imagine that you are not an omnignostic civilization, but you are already advanced enough to realize that virtualizing your entire culture/planet/society has to be done. So you do it.
Given that your knowledge of the universe is finite, you will be able to simulate a limited number of things (ideas, concepts, objects, etc).
Such a world cannot know what progress is. The knowledge you posses is migrated inside a virtual machine, and from that point - that set of knowledge becomes constant, as you will not be able to generate fundamentally new ideas.
In a non-simulated world, scientists discover new planets, new compounds, new elements; an archeologist can stumble upon the skull of a previously unknown flavour of ancient mammals, etc.
In a simulated world, there is nothing new. You cannot stumble upon an unknown skull; the existence of the skull in that location is a mere consequence of the fact that whoever set up the simulation decided to place it there. In other words - we already knew it was there.
Of course, a simulation could be set up slightly differently -instead of uploading an up to date snapshot of the civilization's knowledge, upload an older version (say, a snapshot taken 100 years ago). It would mean that the individuals living inside the simulated world could still discover new things and devise new concepts.
After a while, they discover everything there is to discover, and the simulation becomes boring, in the sense that nothing new ever happens.
It can be summarized as - uploading an older version of the snapshot does not resolve the core problem, it just delays it slightly.
My conclusion is that if a civilization ever decides to virtualize itself (i.e. scan everyone's brains and upload them in a matrix-like world, then destroy everything they created, except the server in which the simulations take place and the '45ple-redundant power-source and alien-invasion automated defense mechanism), they are either aware omnignostics, or they are not going to do it. If they do - the simulated world will be boring, for there would be no progress in it.
I exclude the possibility of partial virtualization - the case in which 99.99% of the civilization goes inside the simulation, while a group of people are left outside to continue researching the non-simulated universe and constantly feed the simulation with new knowledge (that those inside can discover).
I consider that such a scenario is unlikely because it jeopardizes the stability of the virtualized world. What if one of those outside decides to pull the plug? What if they decide to tinker with the virtual world by changing the state (just like a programmer can alter the value of a variable with a debugger, making the rest of the program think that that's the way it was supposed to be) of the simulated world?
Besides that, there can be moral issues that lead to the polarization of society: "Soo.. you get to live inside a simulation, without death, without aging... while I am left out here to die of old age while watching your backs?".
You may think that it can be solved by letting those on the outside upload themselves as soon as they reach a certain age; but... what if they die in an accident? Where will new people come from? Will there be a "lower caste" that supplies the civilization with technical support personnel? Also, this doesn't address the problem of "what if they pull the plug?" or "what if they begin to make changes without our [those inside the simulation] consent?".
If humanity ever reaches a state in which we can formally prove that we know everything there is to know about the universe, it could mean that:
- We're non-simulated aware omnignostics - we've hit the jackpot, and there is officially no distinction between us and god.
- We live inside someone else's simulation, the "student's experiment scenario". [I doubt that humanity of the future will consciously upload itself into a limited simulation, sentencing themselves to eternal boringness]
To sum things up - simulated worlds have a problem, the "knowledge upper bound" problem. It is just a matter of time before the upper bound is reached, and the simulated individuals begin to question their reality.
p.s. you may argue that a simulation can be made to look like new if we use some sort of a "procedurally generated content" approach. For example, using this method you can generate an infinite number of objects that can be defined as a "building" - because they have some common traits (ex: entrance, rooms, stairs, etc), yet none is exactly like the other. You can also place skulls and skeletons of ralienosaurs :-) here and there - but they would still be derivatives of a pattern, a known pattern. Nothing fundamentally new.
p.p.s. you can solve the "knowledge upper bound problem" problem by causing a mass-extinction cataclysm inside the simulated world, to reset the knowledge level. If this happens, you must be inside a "student's simulated world", for I fail to see why a civilization would willingly decide to destroy itself, even if it is inside a virtual world.
In case you think I'm begging the question, here's another proposal: why wouldn't the specimens of the virtual world be a different sort of beings than they were in the real world? Perhaps they could be a little dumber, or have fewer senses (but still able to survive), or have a new sense, such that their way of being in the world (which includes knowing and making) would be relevantly different?
And finally, you seem to assume that progress is factual discovery. We've had this conversation before, but here I go again: I personally wouldn't find myself at a loss if every fact about the universe would one day be discovered. There's always philosophy and the arts, plus hobbies. And since these are hardly about definite answers, they'd keep me happily occupied for pretty much the rest of my life.
Ok, one last thing. You worry about the safety of the people in the virtual world. But if they're really that desperate, should they care that much about the possibility of someone pulling the plug? Wouldn't they say to themselves something like 'I'd rather die than be this bored, so it's better to jump into a new world even if I don't have that much certainty about it.' ?
But if you zoom out and analyze this from the perspective of a state or a transnational corporation, you will observe interesting things, such as:
- hmmm... it's been 30 years since someone submitted a new paper in chessodynamics;
- university deans will realize that their MSc and Phd folks have not done anything new;
- IBM's entire R&D department will be fired, because they do nothing; they'll hire new people and fire them too. After a couple of iterations, they will begin to wonder what the hell is going on, especially that their competition followed the same pattern.
The media reports it, and people who were not aware of this issue will suddenly begin to question the authenticity of the world that surrounds them. The Wachowskis make their first matrix movie, in which the spoon exists no more. While artists happily continue their existence, composing the Nth variation of "life sucks" or painting the next version of "St. Peter and Jesus", some random guy on the Internet posts an article about the limitations of virtualization, philosophers chime in and share their opinion. People become aware of the problem, their lives cannot be the same anymore. Mankind's integrity will begin to shake, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a deck of cards :-)
So, initially this will only affect people doing hard science and engineering, but since the world is very interactive and connected - awareness of the problem will begin to spread out like the power of the Moldovan empire did, back in 2012 :-)
The idea of virtualizing a slightly modified species is interesting, it can solve the problem. But I think that human selfishness will play against it. The mentality of a modern human is not likely to allow that; it requires a lot of strength and willpower to accept such a change (once you realize there is no other way). Today we invade countries that did nothing to offend us, we continue to pollute the planet and abuse the resources [despite the fact that we are aware of the consequences], etc. We are not going to accept such a major change. I say 'we', even though I personally did not kill anyone and I don't own a SUV, because I've zoomed out of myself and I refer to our civilization as a whole.
So, humanity has to change in order to allow this to happen. Someone said "Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children. "
We can adapt this statement to this case - some post-humans will be virtualized, but humans, as they are today, won't go for it.
What must happen to convince humanity to change at such a level - that's an interesting question. I expect this is not going to be possible, simply because there are different opinions and some choose to stick to their opinions despite any argument; ex: the Amish people, people who believe in god, people who don't believe in god, people who continue voting for communists, etc. At the same time, this is one of our strengths - we are not a homogeneous blob of thoughts and opinions, we are very diverse (that's a feature, not a bug).
But if they're really that desperate, should they care that much about the possibility of someone pulling the plug?
Why wouldn't they? You transcend from an old world, where you are not likely to survive, to a new one - where your odds of survival are not higher. Why make the change?
Wouldn't they say to themselves something like 'I'd rather die than be this bored, so it's better to jump into a new world even if I don't have that much certainty about it.' ?
Misinterpretation warning! :-)
real world = death
virtual world = bore
I interpret "I'd rather die than be this bored" as "I won't virtualize myself"
"So it is better to jump into the new world" = "I'd rather get bored than die, so I'm for virtualization"
I'll tackle both variations. In the first case, selfishness and self-preservation instincts will kick in, people won't choose death*.
In the second one they must accept to become dumber, and then pride kicks in - so it doesn't happen.
Neither option seems attractive and they both are incompatible with modern humanity. So I guess we agree that humans, as they are today, will not virtualize themselves, and that some changes are necessary.
* some people are fine with choosing death. The samurai who kill themselves for honour, the suicide-bombers who believe they are doing a good thing, members of a religious sect committing mass-suicide, people who commit suicide for other reasons. However, these are exceptions, they do not apply to humanity as a whole (since we are not a monoculture).
Perhaps I should wait for your reply before I go any further, but in case I'll go on at the risk of being off the mark. I'm trying to imagine a situation where no new scientific discoveries are made for quite a while. Well, it might seem suspicious, but not necessarily. After all, it's not unthinkable that one day we'll run out of facts to discover. And yes, we'll have to be a different sort of society then. How different I cannot tell. I don't think we'll do away with universities, for instance. Discoveries or no discoveries, we'll need to conserve knowledge and pass it on: teach. I mean, we'll need educated operators, always. See...I can't really see how do you go from this to the idea of virtualization. Governments will come up with a way to run states with a view to this new development. What problems do you see exactly? Is it that, dunno...capitalist economy is based on the idea of competition among producers, which makes it necessary to always have new stuff to market? Surely there's a way around that...I mean, even now people are talking about slowing down growth, and we've still got so many unknowns. I don't find it all that implausible that one day we'll get used to the thought that economic growth is not worth striving for at all costs.
As for virtualization, a dumbed-down existence can be advertised using more, um, appealing descriptions. We could, for instance, emphasize that we'll find the world more wondrous and interesting through that lens. You know, like children. We could say that new way of being will make for a longer attention span which would enable to appreciate more things at a slower pace. As for pride, well, not sure. All these people who lead a petty complacent existence must know they'd be prouder of themselves doing something better, and yet they indulge. Maybe you're too optimistic about humans. And besides, dumbing down is not the only option. We could just have an alternative set of senses, you know, different, not worse.