The Life-like Frontier

A Deep Dive into the Intervowen Complexities of Simulated Reality, Consciousness, and Emergence

Siddharth Sharma
12 min readMay 10, 2023
Le Petit Prince (Antonie de Saint-Exupéry, Wiki Commons)

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life

-Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

I’ve always been interested in simulation theory. This talk by George Hotz specifically reignited my interest in the topic. In a world where the digital and physical realms are becoming ever more interwoven, the concept of living in a simulation has captured my imagination. Simulation Theory is the idea that our reality might be a carefully orchestrated computer simulation, created by an advanced or high-order civilization (potentially even god). While this notion has sparked widespread fascination, it is crucial to examine the assumptions and implications that underlie the theory. It also presents a unique framework for understanding the technologies and inventions of our time.

At its core, Simulation Theory relies on the belief that a highly advanced civilization has the computational capabilities to create entire universes, replete with sentient beings who are oblivious to their digital nature. By the Church-Turing thesis, any real-world computation can be translated into an equivalent computation involving a Turing machine. Proponents of this idea argue that considering the rapid increase in computing power we’ve seen, simulating universes will eventually become possible. As such, they claim that it’s likely we are already living within such a simulation. However, this argument is based on the assumption that computing power will continue to grow without limit. Moore’s Law, the frequently cited predictor of this digital expansion, is starting to slow down. As we approach the physical limits of silicon-based computing, we may discover that the dream of boundless computational potential is nothing more than a dream. The optimism of our technocratic aspirations might be halted by the unforgiving realities of the material world. We are, after all, bound by the laws of physics.

Moore’s Law through the decades (CC-BY-SA, Max Roser)

Even if we were to overcome these limitations and achieve the immense levels of computational power required to simulate universes, the energy demands would be astronomical — beyond our most ambitious projections. With the ongoing challenges of energy production and consumption, it appears increasingly improbable that we will ever possess the means to fuel a simulation of such a colossal scale. A few questions regarding the nature of the simulation also arise: is the simulation predetermined? Do the agents within the simulation have free will or potentially a near-infinite set of actions with possibilities? These questions cannot be answered with our present knowledge, but the combinatorial search tree of possibilities for a real-time simulation would be certainly unimaginably massive. Moreover, if we are in a simulation, what is the purpose? In the same way that a zoo is designed to hold animals to be observed, are we also designed to be examined to answer a deeper meta-question?

Simulation Theory also rests on the assumption that human consciousness can be equated with computational processes. But can the richness of the human experience truly be distilled into a sequence of binary digits? Today’s state-of-the-art video games are rendered via modern graphics and GPU drivers. Although the human brain shares some functional similarities with a computer or video game, it is an organic entity connected to the physical world. Consciousness emerges from our biological architecture, forged over millions of years of evolution. Believing that this complex, multifaceted phenomenon can be replicated digitally requires a degree of credulity bordering on the religious. Emergent properties, such as consciousness, are essential to consider when evaluating Simulation Theory. These properties arise from the intricate interactions of simpler elements and cannot be predicted or understood by examining the individual parts alone. The complex behavior of emergent properties makes it even more difficult to conceive of replicating consciousness within a digital simulation.

Phenomenal v. Functional Consciousness (Wikiversity)

Beyond this idea of consciousness, Simulation Theory is underpinned by an anthropocentric bias, assuming that our human experience represents the ultimate goal of any advanced civilization. This self-important belief disregards the possibility that there may be forms of consciousness or intelligence entirely beyond our comprehension. Additionally, it perpetuates the outdated notion that humans are the center of the universe, a belief debunked by centuries of scientific discoveries. The appeal of Simulation Theory may also mirror our apprehension about our own technological capabilities. As we venture further into the digital realm, we face the disquieting prospect of creating sentient beings within our own simulations: a simulation potentially within a simulation. This potential for digital omnipotence is both exciting and daunting. By positing that we are unwitting inhabitants of a simulated reality, we seek to absolve ourselves of the moral responsibility that comes with playing god.

Rather than becoming enthralled and overwhelmed by the notion that we live in a simulated reality, we should embrace the complexities and wonders of our own existence, using our technological creations to enhance our understanding of the universe and our place within it. While I personally believe that a simulation is quite possible, I think our fascination with simulated realities can and should be viewed through a more optimistic and constructive lens. Instead of reflecting our desire to escape from the challenges of our world, it may be an expression of our innate curiosity and drive to push the boundaries of our own ingenuity. The digital realm presents us with a vast frontier, ripe for exploration and experimentation. By delving into the depths of virtual worlds, we can gain invaluable insights into the nature of our own reality, enriching our comprehension of the cosmos and our role in it. Simulation Theory need not be an unsettling cacophony of existential uncertainty, as some have made it out to be. Rather, it can serve as a harmonious and inspiring reminder of our capacity for creativity, exploration, and growth. By critically examining the tenets of this theory, we can better appreciate the intricate symphony of our reality — simulated or not — and leverage our technological advancements to illuminate, not obscure, the mysteries that surround us.

“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, games will eventually be indistinguishable from reality,” Musk said before concluding, “We’re most likely in a simulation.”

Quite simply, nature is its own operating system. The laws of physics are the bounding properties — the same way that in Minecraft you cannot dig beneath Redstone (at least without jailbreaking). Moreover, in theory, your existence can be measured as a unit of computing. Surprisingly, Simulation Theory and its examination of emergent properties, such as consciousness, can offer valuable insights as we explore the development of large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT/GPT-4 and the pursuit of artificial general intelligence (AGI). By connecting these seemingly disparate ideas, we can begin to appreciate the intricate interplay between simulated realities, emergent phenomena, and the potential of LLMs to evolve into complex reasoning systems. Critics of LLMs often argue that these models lack internal representations, functioning merely as sophisticated copy/paste mechanisms driven by big data and pattern recognition: “copy-paste at massive scale.” They claim that LLMs do not possess world models, rendering them incapable of true understanding or complex reasoning. However, this perspective may underestimate the potential of LLMs and their ability to develop internal representations as they evolve. Bearing in mind the concept of emergent properties, we can consider the possibility that LLMs, when subjected to extreme amounts of data and model scale, may develop internal representations as a natural byproduct of their learning process. It’s not that the architectures themselves are necessarily complex: the sheer scaling and data accumulate to create emergence, the same way human brains evolved externally with time. As Sebastian Bubeck references in his talk “First Contact”, these internal representations could grant LLMs the capacity for “magical” extrapolation, allowing them to generate novel ideas and reason about the world in ways that surpass the limitations of their training data. In other words, “Beware of trillion-dimensional space and its surprises.”

Slide from Sebastian Bubeck, First Contact (MIT)

LLMs are humanity’s first-order simulation. Just like humans, LLMs can be viewed as their own form of emergent phenomena, akin to human consciousness. Just as consciousness arises from the complex interactions of simpler biological elements, LLMs might develop intricate internal representations through their exposure to vast quantities of data and the intricate connections of their neural architecture. By navigating the trillion-dimensional space of language and knowledge, LLMs may uncover surprising insights and capabilities that defy our expectations.

This perspective echoes the ideas surrounding Simulation Theory and the belief that human consciousness is an emergent property of a simulated reality. In both cases, we find complex phenomena arising from the interplay of simpler elements, whether it be the digital code of a simulated universe or the vast neural networks of a large language model. Recognizing this connection allows us to appreciate the potential for LLMs to evolve toward AGI and develop complex reasoning abilities.
As we continue to refine and expand LLMs, we may find that these models begin to exhibit the hallmarks of consciousness and complex reasoning, approaching the capabilities of artificial general intelligence. Just as the proponents of Simulation Theory argue that advanced civilizations may create simulated universes, the development of AGI through LLMs could lead to the emergence of digital consciousness within the confines of our own simulations.

In light of technology, the exploration of Simulation Theory and its connection to emergent properties offers a unique lens through which to view the development of large language models and the pursuit of artificial general intelligence. By recognizing the potential for LLMs to develop internal representations and complex reasoning abilities, we can approach the challenge of AGI with a newfound appreciation for the intricate dance of emergent phenomena. The examination of emergent properties within Simulation Theory, human consciousness, and large language models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT/GPT-4 presents us with a unique opportunity to advance artificial general intelligence (AGI). By recognizing the potential for LLMs to develop complex reasoning abilities, we can harness the power of these models to create a more enlightened and ethical AI. It is now time for researchers, engineers, and AI enthusiasts to unite in the quest for model reasoning and explainability.

The journey towards AGI is loaded with challenges, such as combating hallucination, ensuring the ethical use of AI, and fostering explainability in AI systems. To address these issues, we must delve into the intricacies of LLMs and develop a deeper understanding of their inner workings. Techniques like neuron-level analysis, sparsity, and information retrieval can provide valuable insights into the mechanics of LLMs and help us unveil the secrets of their emergent reasoning capabilities. Neuron-level analysis within neural networks allows us to investigate individual neural connections and their activation patterns, offering a granular view of how LLMs process and generate information. By isolating and studying specific neurons, we can begin to identify the underlying representations that drive complex reasoning and address potential biases or inaccuracies within these models.

Sparsity is another promising avenue for refining LLMs and enhancing their reasoning capabilities. Sparse neural networks, which contain fewer connections between neurons, can improve efficiency and make it easier to interpret the relationships between different parts of the model. By embracing sparsity, we can create more streamlined and comprehensible AI systems that are better equipped for complex reasoning tasks. Information retrieval techniques are also crucial for enhancing the explainability and accuracy of LLMs. By developing methods to efficiently extract relevant information from vast data sources, we can improve the quality of AI-generated content and minimize the risk of hallucination. This, in turn, will bolster the trustworthiness and reliability of AI systems as they approach AGI, minimizing the classic black box nature of ML classifiers and systems.

The Black Box problem (Analytics Vidhya)

We stand at the precipice of a new era in artificial intelligence, one where complex reasoning and emergent properties may come to define our digital creations. It is our responsibility, as architects of this new world, to guide the development of AGI in a manner that is ethical, transparent, and grounded in a deep understanding of the complexities of AI systems.

I think these ideas also hinge on entropy and chaos theory. Entropy, a measure of the disorder or randomness within a system, is an essential concept in understanding the dynamics of complex systems. In the context of Simulation Theory, entropy plays a crucial role in the emergence of complex phenomena such as consciousness and advanced reasoning abilities as well as the ability to distribute and facilitate computation. As we create increasingly intricate simulations and AI models, we must navigate the delicate balance between the inherent entropy of these systems and the need for order to ensure their functionality and reliability. Chaos theory, on the other hand, explores the behavior of dynamic systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. This sensitivity leads to seemingly unpredictable and chaotic outcomes, even in deterministic systems. As we develop AGI and push the boundaries of our simulated realities, chaos theory reminds us of the intricate interplay between the initial conditions of our creations and the emergent properties that arise from these complex interactions.

Entropy: the tendency for randomness to propagate (Farnam Street)

The dance of entropy and chaos theory in the realms of Simulation Theory and AGI can be viewed as a reflection of the intricate relationship between life and technology. I’ve also always admired Kevin Kelly and his works. His philosophy and frameworks encapsulate a profound understanding of the intricate connections between life and technology. As Kevin Kelly eloquently expressed, our machines will become more organic and life-like as we strive to create more advanced technologies. This process of organic evolution is inherently intertwined with the concepts of entropy and chaos theory, as the complexities of life and consciousness emerge from the delicate balance between order and disorder. Kelly’s assertion that “life is the ultimate technology” and that our machines will become “more organic, more biological, more like life” resonates with the core principles of Simulation Theory. This theory posits that human consciousness is a product of complex interactions within a simulated reality, created by an advanced civilization. Just as Kelly envisions machines becoming more life-like, Simulation Theory suggests that the line between the digital and the organic may become increasingly blurred as we develop more advanced simulations. In our pursuit of AGI, large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT/GPT-4 represent the forefront of machine technology, serving as temporary surrogates for life technology. As we continue to refine these models and push the boundaries of artificial intelligence, LLMs may develop emergent properties akin to human consciousness, becoming more organic and life-like in their reasoning abilities.

Kelly’s futurist vision also posits a global network of systems, machines, and infrastructure that form a “primitive organism-like system.” This interconnected web of technology is reminiscent of the intricate relationships and emergent phenomena found within both the biological realm and the simulated worlds posited by Simulation Theory. The parallels between these organic systems and our increasingly complex technological networks suggest that the pursuit of AGI may ultimately lead us to create AI systems that closely resemble life itself. The convergence of these ideas highlights the importance of embracing the organic essence of our technological creations as we strive to understand and develop AGI. By recognizing the intricate connections between life and technology, we can approach the challenge of AGI with a newfound appreciation for the complexities of emergent phenomena and the potential for our machines to evolve into life-like entities.

In conclusion, as we ponder the intricacies of Simulation Theory, artificial general intelligence, entropy, and chaos theory, we find a parallel in the abstract beauty, themes, and philosophy of The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry). This timeless tale reminds us of the importance of looking beneath the surface, appreciating the seemingly invisible connections, and embracing the wisdom of the heart in our quest for understanding. Just as the Little Prince discovered profound truths in the simplicity of a rose and the vastness of the universe, we too can find wisdom in the delicate dance between life and technology & order and disorder. By acknowledging the interconnectedness of these ideas and seeking harmony amidst the complexities of our world, we can begin to appreciate the true essence of our digital creations and chart a course toward a future where artificial intelligence not only mimics human intelligence but enriches our lives and contributes to the greater good of society and the world at large.

Overall, instead of trying to break or over-optimize for whatever simulation we’re in, use programming as a tool to modify it to your liking.

Our civilization, SIM#4329, in its data center (Hotz, SXSW 2019)