By Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD | December 21, 2018 | Cognitive World on Forbes
The idea that we are living inside a simulation is not new. Many religions propose the existence of a creator—an omnipotent deity who formed the world and set its rules in motion—but this is simply another way of framing the video game hypothesis.
It’s bigger than you think. Of the 7.4 billion people on this planet, only about 1.2 billion are non-religious or atheist. In other words, 84 percent of us are comfortable with the idea of the world as the work of a creator, and ourselves as temporary characters waiting to transition to a better world.
Some religions take this further with concepts of respawning (e.g., reincarnation), which might depend on one’s performance through life, and points (e.g., karma) accumulated in each iteration.
Every Religion That Defines a Creator and a Set of Rules Also Assumes Our World Is a Simulation.
Nick Bostrom, a professor at the University of Oxford and the founder of the Future of Humanity Institute, developed a strong theoretical and philosophical framework for the simulation hypothesis. We are familiar with simulations from popular films like The Matrix, Tron, Ready Player One, and TV shows like Black Mirror. The Academy-Award winning film Inception—about a dream within a dream within a dream—is a globally popular example of a recursive simulation.
Yet these are as if mere daydreams compared to the power and reach of the future video games.
With the explosion of the consumer market, video game developers can invest unprecedented resources into the creation of realistic games, with no end in sight. Many are approaching truly life-like realism with massive multiplayer options.
To succeed, the games must be sticky.
A player must become convinced that he or she belongs to the new world, while more or less forgetting about the world outside. This feature is especially appealing for those trying to escape from unpleasant situations. Wouldn’t it be great to spend time away from your current reality while recovering from the flu, dealing with a difficult colleague, or just having a bad day?
If we take a look at the most successful open world video game franchises—Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, Deus Ex—we notice that their worlds are built “in our image.” They resemble our earthly environment.
These video games offer a simplified representation of reality, while cleverly appealing to our primordial instincts. The ability to be reborn, explore many alternative scenarios, and even kill others without guilt, is all part of a god-like experience that contributes to their addictive potency.
Many games are recursive—we can play a game within the game. When you grow bored with the main game or would like to earn some points, you start playing a game within a game. If this life is a simulation, there’s a chance that when we exit or die, it will be an exit into another simulation, or a respawn in this reality.
If this life is a video game, and at this moment there are hundreds of thousands of people working on making realistic and captivating video games trying to replicate and augment our reality, we’re likely to soon be pulled into a new, better reality created by us.
Hence, My Answer to the Question “Is This Life a Recursive Video Game?” Is “Most Likely Yes.”
There has never been a better time to be alive. Our grandparents witnessed the transition from horse-drawn buggies to cars and 747 airplanes. We are likely to see a transition from this reality to an abundance of new, ever more realistic and powerful realities.
At the same time, present and future generations will probably experience substantially longer lifespans.
This combination—a profusion of realities and longer lifespans—will change everything.
While there is much talk about income inequality, the number of people living in poverty is rapidly decreasing. Middle-class families enjoy a better quality of life and more entertainment options than the Queen of England just two centuries ago. The Queen certainly didn’t have access to comfortable air travel, Netflix, fresh fruit, and video games.
In a sense, video games level the divide between the rich and poor, young and old, because in the game you’re free to choose your own role.
Economic Factors Are Making Video Games Necessary
Realistic and addictive video game development is an economic necessity for two basic reasons: Labor is being displaced by AI; while the planet’s expanding population is living longer.
Despite a slowing birth rate in developed countries, the world’s population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. Still, many of today’s jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence.
The extra time available to humans must be spent somewhere, somehow.
In response, the entertainment industry is in upheaval. Companies like Amazon, Alibaba and YouTube are investing billions into projects to create and deliver video content, while others like Tencent pour resources into mobile gaming. As Generation X—the first generation to grow up with video games—reaches retirement age, video games are likely to become even more profitable and sophisticated.
Won’t Life Get Boring?
After a lecture on advances in longevity biotechnology, I’m frequently asked, “What will happen if people can live significantly longer in a youthful, disease-free state? Won’t life get boring?”
I sigh. It’s a novice question. I could talk about space exploration, advanced research, and the arts.
My quick answer is try to play the new open world video games. By the time you get comfortable with the controls, you’ll be addicted to at least one of them. Moreover, if you don’t like playing, then generate content for those who do play.
An educational component could be added for today’s retirees. When they wake from the immersive experience, they could go back to work, if they so choose.
Video Games Are a Key to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)
Today, many excellent open world games are free to play, it just takes a little longer to advance and build up one’s character. Even if you’re not paying, your personal data has value; it can be collected, analyzed, used, or sold.
In the future, gamers will help train Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). One strategy for developing super intelligent AI systems is to have them interact with human players in life-like environments, allowing them to evolve. Most advanced AI companies are already training their AIs to play against humans in video games likeDoTA and StarCraft.
If we couple this trend with advanced brain-to-computer interfaces, it may be possible to produce advanced AGI that will continue even further, both developing and cloning games themselves—and the humans within them.
Video game developers should consider making games less violent so that when AGI is brought into this world it doesn’t kill us all. In addition, if you are playing video games, chose the least violent. Developers get their feedback via revenue, and it’s unfortunate that the most popular games are also the most violent.
Video Games Are an Untapped Goldmine of Decision Information
The Witcher, a brilliant Polish game series, offers hundreds of hours of alternative gameplay with divergent endings. You can cheat, be honorable, kill, or show mercy. The barriers between good and bad are blurred, and you’re free to make choices that suit your personality.
The recent video game masterpiece Detroit: Become Human collects and displays stats on player decisions. I’m able to view a decision tree showing my path through the game, complete with the percentage of others around the world that made the same decisions. In theory, we might receive something similar at the end of our lives—perhaps Judgment Day is simply a final decision tree?
With modern AI algorithms, these decision trees can be linked to information about the player, to build a psycho-type and predict player behavior in the future. The decisions people make inside video games are valuable—in fact, they’re undervalued at present. I would love to develop these statistics for prospective employees, to select only the righteous and suitable for each role.
Still, there’s now no market for this data, and of course, the ethical guidelines of such hiring practices have yet to be established.
Quests within games sometimes pose odd ethical dilemmas. As an example, let’s consider a popular side quest in Assassin’s Creed called “Age is Just a Number.” Outside the Sanctuary of Delphi, a mature, married woman challenges the player to procure ingredients for a stimulating elixir that will help her husband satisfy her constant cravings. Later, the player is given an option to offer himself or herself as the solution while the relieved husband waits outside. If the objective of the game is to maximize points, an AI agent playing the game will choose rationally and satisfy the woman. However, many humans are likely to pass on the opportunity. Detailed global statistics from this scene could result in a fascinating, high-impact research paper that evaluates factors contributing to ageism.
As Humans, Achieving a New Level of Recursion Should Help Us Become Better Rather Than Worse
In a time of tremendous profusion and change, where should you start?
My advice: Live this life as if you’re in a video game.
Imagine that as you progress through your day, all your decisions are monitored and recorded. Most religious people already subscribe to this idea. Try a recent video game, like Detroit: Become Human, and assume that your choices will be available to spectators and friends when you come out of the game.
How will you play? This approach will require a more stringent moral and ethical framework than any religion or philosophy can provide.
In the game of life, an optimal strategy should take into account the common good. At the same time, we must find a universal metric to evaluate our performance as we play.
In my next article, I will outline my views on a winning strategy.