Friday 7 January 2011

Simulated research: an experimental life

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a group of research scientists set up a simulation experiment using multiple artificial intelligences running on a vast array of extremely fast supercomputers. The simulation was of the emergence of life on an insignificant little blue-green planet orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy.*

The scientists entered certain values into an instance of this simulation, such that sooner or later simulated life would not only emerge on this simulated planet, but would develop simulated intelligence, income tax and rice pudding. And this is what in fact happened.

The intelligent simulated life-forms began to wonder what it was all for, and some speculated about the group of scientists (though of course they did not call them such) who had instigated the whole thing. They came up with a number of theories, including the suggestion that the research scientists themselves (though of course they did not call them such) didn't actually exist. "There's no compelling evidence," they said, "that the universe we live in was created by a group of research scientists" — though they did not use those exact words. "The burden of proof rests with those who claim that the universe was created by a group of research scientists." (Though the words they used might not have been exactly those.)

Some others felt that the doubters were obviously wrong. "Look at the simulated trees," they said (or words to that effect). "The evidence for the existence of the group of research scientists is all around us. How else could simulated life arise, if not by the intentional actions of a group of research scientists?"

The doubters, however, were not impressed. Some of them had done scientific research themselves, and had discovered that much of the simulated life around them, including themselves, exhibited signs of common structure, as if all the various examples of complex simulated life were derived from a much simpler simulated life, and had developed, over a long period of time, from such simple simulated life. They found that they could tinker with that structure and cause certain types of simulated life to develop in particular ways. By examining the structure of all simulated life, they were able to document how it had developed from, ultimately, something very simple indeed.

Those who held to the theory that the simulated universe was instigated by a group of research scientists had to agree that it was not necessary for said research scientists to tinker in any ongoing way, except occasionally in response to special appeals. Sometimes it was felt necessary that events should proceed in a way that did not conform to the established, well-known pattern. Such non-conforming events (if indeed they were non-conforming — some of the doubters disputed even this) were naturally taken as evidence for the existence of the group of research scientists. But though the doubters had shown that the research scientists were not strictly necessary in the normal run of things, they had not shown how everything could have started off at the beginning of time. Surely, therefore, the group of research scientists were responsible for that?

"Not necessarily," said the doubters. "We know how all complex simulated life has developed from simpler simulated life, right back to the least complex simulated life. It seems likely that we will discover how that simplest simulated life came into being."

"But you don't know, do you? It's reasonable, therefore, to suppose that the research scientists were responsible."

"No, we don't know," said the doubters, "but that's no excuse for falling back on an entirely unsupported theory that has no evidence and cannot be falsified."

"You just don't want there to be a group of research scientists, do you? Clearly you're in denial. Or maybe you can't bear the thought of a group of research scientists watching your every move and taking notes."

The doubters were unmoved by what they considered to be appeals to emotion. They had looked at the evidence for the group of research scientists and found it wanting. They were aware that their own research was incomplete, that they still lacked information, but felt justified in reserving judgement regarding the existence of the group of research scientists.

Others did not agree. "How come," they said to the doubters, "that the universe we live in is just the way it is — a way that appears exactly right for us? It must have been made that way so we could be here. And we know who made it. It was obviously the group of research scientists."

"No," said the doubters. "You've got it backwards. We are exactly like we are because we live here. Our universe is what makes us what we are, not the other way around."

"But what made our universe? It must have been the group of research scientists!"

"What made the group of research scientists?" asked the doubters.

"Now you're just being silly."

Of course the group of research scientists observed all of these exchanges and did indeed take notes. Eventually they decided — for no particular reason — that the experiment was complete, and they switched off the simulation.

*With apologies to George Lucas and Douglas Adams