Ask Ray | Experiment to find out if we’re being simulated

June 1, 2013 by Ray Kurzweil

Dear Ray,

Hi, I’m contacting you now and asking you to please consider the following scenario. AD 2060 or later:

Humans can simulate multiple universes. We do so, and eventually intelligent life evolves in one and achieves a civilization with roughly the same science and computation as Earth 2010. This life will be a completely alien species, on a (simulated) alien planet.

That species figures out that it is in a simulation, and sets out to discover the architecture of the computer it’s running on. Eventually they figure out how to step outside of their bounds, i.e. they get a little snippet of code to run outside that universe.

Microsoft’s virtual New York City. (credit: Bing Maps Platform)

What do we, as humans, do at this point? Essentially, whatever computer was running our simulation is now being probed by an alien species. If I were in charge of the humans at that point, I would simply say “okay, freeze it.” Just to be safe.

The thing is, that universe is running at such a sped-up rate (remember, I’m running these universes fast enough to evolve an intelligent species in years, days, or minutes, not eons).

That means we need to have some sort of automated detection system that can detect a breach and then freeze the simulation to protect the system.

Because the game theory is completely independent of who’s doing the simulating and who’s being simulated, I believe that whoever is simulating THIS universe must have some sort of detection / freezing / purging system in place.

In short, I’m saying that performing this experiment, or maybe some step of the follow-up, *could* in fact reveal our existence to an alien race with superior hardware. And therefore could be a really bad move, or one we should think about.

I know this sounds crazy, but to someone who’s never heard of the singularity or who’s fallen into the trap of believing they are in an unchanging world, suddenly hearing about cyborgs and reversing aging and nanotech neurons replacing their brain piece by piece would sound crazy too. This is the experiment I’m referring to:

related reading:
The Verge | “Physicists devise test to see if we’re living in The Matrix

In the unlikely event you hadn’t seen this yet here’s a synopsis:

1.) Scientists will be performing a measurement of energy behavior at planck lengths
2.) The purpose of the experiment is to see if our universe’s properties mimic a computer system
3.) The experiment is still being planned – hasn’t happened yet (whew!)

I’m writing because I believe something dangerous may be about to happen and I believe you have the foresight to not think I’m crazy when I say this.

(credit: Bing Maps Platform)

I’m worried that if we *are* being simulated, the experiment could trigger some sort of containment strategy in the computer system that is running the simulation.

By containment I mean like:

# do nothing


The purpose of this code would be to protect the simulating species (the other species) from having their computers hacked by the simulated species (us humans). If you think this is at all conceivable, please read on: if you think this is a reasonable threat, maybe you could reach out to these scientists and have them wait a minute.



That’s a thoughtful scenario. First of all, if we are the simulating species, I would not take the position that we should shut down the simulation because intelligent beings in the simulation were about to breach the simulation. That would be immoral as it would constitute terminating conscious beings.

We shouldn’t assume that contact with such beings would necessarily end up badly. That’s long been a premise of science fiction which assumes that contact with alien beings would end up in destruction.

We are the creators of these beings so they may be appreciative. From the perspective of being the simulated species, I agree it is conceivable that the species controlling our simulation may have put a freeze trip wire in place but I think there is very little we can do about that.

It is one of many existential risks that we just have to live with. Shutting down our own progress to avoid that scenario is not sensible because we have many real problems that we need to solve and stopping progress to ameliorate this one existential risk is not a good trade off.


related links:
news | “Do we live in a computer simulation? How to test the idea”
news | “Whoa, dude, are we inside a computer right now”
essay | “How to live in a simulation”

related viewing from films about simulated worlds: