Standards, Virtual Worlds and The Big Question

It was not so long ago that most kids in school experienced a predictable "Oh Wow!" moment when they learned about atomic structure (that's "Oh Wow!" as in, "What if our solar system is, like, you know, just an 'atom' in this, like, really big 'molecule' thing called a galaxy and…"). 
Today, of course, that Oh Wow! moment is more likely to be sparked by a video game or, more recently, a visit to a virtual world. And after all, it was time for a change anyway, what with the discovery of subatomic particles, and the assumption that there's no physical "there" there at all – just electronic charges. Or whatever. Personally, I've always found the video game day dream more appealing and amusing than the atomic theory in any case. After all – how much difference is there between energizing a monitor and the Big Bang? Oh Wow!

The old concept of life as being something other than what we suppose returned to me just now while checking in at Bob Sutor's Open Blog, where I read about a Virtual Worlds Conference held at MIT on June 15 and find a live blog entry at Virtual Worlds News on a panel that Bob moderate. And yes, there's (of course) a standards hook in here somewhere.

You’ll find the standards connection in a related article (catchily titled Standards to help users keep virtual clothes on).  In that article, IDG’s China Martens interviews Sutor in advance of the Virtual Worlds Conference. Given that Bob is not only a recently hooked virtual world fan but the chief standards and open source guy at IBM as well, he had a few thoughts about why virtual worlds need standards. For example, the article includes this: 
“A lot of people are looking at Second Life and saying, ‘Let’s do one of those,'” said Bob Sutor, vice president of standards and open source at IBM Corp. “The last thing you want is a lot of different ways to do the same things. You need standards for how to teleport between different virtual worlds and to bring objects with you.” …Besides an avatar’s clothes, those objects could include the money it was using in your home virtual world as well as a presentation you might want to share with your colleagues or potential customers.
Hmm. Sounds like a real problem you’d want to tackle – who (certain publicity hungry celebrities aside) would want to arrive in a room full of people unannounced with no money and no clothes, even virtually? But as virtual worlds get fine-tuned to this degree, the old “Oh Wow! What if…?” question may be moving from the fun to the mildly uncomfortable. 
Why uncomfortable? Well, have you ever noticed that no one has a clue what or why gravity is? We observe it, we measure it, we try and fit it into a Grand Theory of Everything, but we haven’t a clue what “it” really is. “It” just “is.” Full Stop. In trying to quantify it and fit it into some logical relationship to other (equally unknowable) strong and weak forces, it’s easy (and comforting) to forget that we haven’t even a tentative theory to explain what or why graviey “is” at all. 
Or how about mathematics? Math doesn’t exist in any sense other than that physical objects often seem to be better at it than many of us are – and it always works. Always. Now why exactly would that be?
If an explanation of gravity cannot even be imagined, as compared to simply the detailed description of its effects based upon observation with which we must satisfy ourselves with today, then perhaps we are left only with the assumption that gravity is simply the manifestation of a standard, to which the world we observe is required to comply?

Making the assumption that the world is governed by rules instead of laws helps solve a lot of puzzles.

After all, Newtonian physics work, but not all the time. When you get down to the realm of the really small, then you have to pull out a different rule book (the quantum physics one) to explain why things happen the way they seem to.  And how about that pesky Dark Matter?  If all physics is just a collection of imposed rules rather than the observable physical laws we think it comprises, then we never have to figure out where all that Dark Matter is hiding.  It becomes just another “known issue” that the programmer fudged.  Once we quit insisting on immutable laws and think in terms of design rules, used only to the extent that they’re really useful and not in the way, we don’t need a Theory of Everything and bizarre patch jobs like string theory at all.

Feeling uncomfortable yet? Well, let’s try this then. Imagine yourself sitting with others at a white board at Linden Lab when Second Life was first being spec’ed out. All kinds of decisions would need to be made, wouldn’t they? Should gravity apply, or not? If it does apply (but not so inflexibly – those lucky avatars can fly!), then we need rules for things like acceleration, or all chaos would result as Second Life gets more densely populated? And to implement them in software, we’d need to have formulae, to make them feasible and predictable, wouldn’t we? 
Now let’s say we wanted to be more conservative and anal than the Linden Lab folks were, or perhaps we just wanted to make our virtual world much more complex (as Linden Lab may well do over time). We might then want those rules – standards, after all – to interoperate seamlessly in order to permit that complexity to operate successfully. If we wanted to allow space travel to other virtual worlds, we’d need (and depending on our personalities, want) to work that out, too.   And so on.
Viewed from that perspective, what are physics and astrophysics and the math that serves them but a set of standards for how objects and energy are permitted to act? And so we see that when physical laws are viewed simply as design rules, then gravity needs no more explanation or reason for existing than does math – it could be just a feature the designers thought would be useful.  Once described and encoded, the rule must be obeyed. “It” then just “is” because “it” is the implementation of a standard that governs the world (virtual or real).
That of course leaves open the same old Big Question: So who “wrote” the standards? A Creator in the traditional, religious sense? Some cosmic virtual world vendor? A standards committee (composed of who, or perhaps what)? I’ll leave that question up to you. (But I will add a last grumpy question or two to whoever it was: if it was all discretionary anyway, why didn’t you let me fly?  And isn’t it about time to release Earth 2.0, maybe without Dick Cheney this time?)
Regardless, the more detailed and finely tuned our virtual worlds become, the more uncomfortable this type of question may feel, as the similarities between our real (“real?”) world and these virtual worlds increasingly outweigh the differences. As this occurs, more questions may arise, like this one: perhaps the Kidnapped by Aliens crowd may not be so crazy after all – maybe the standards committee for our virtual world just did a lousy job on the travel between virtual worlds standards Bob thinks we need. After all, a few bad standards would really add to the credibility of the theory, wouldn’t it?
So there you are. Something to think about the next time you have nothing to think about. And if you do, here’s one last question to mull over: will our world (game?) really end when the sun becomes a red giant and roasts us to a cinder, or will some cosmic server simply and inevitably crash someday – set up with a faulty backup program? 
No burn, no bang. Just an all too imaginable whimper as the hard drives coast s-l-o-w-l-y to a halt…
Damn! I hate it when that happens!
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
If that all seems too preposterous to you, here’s a challenge: leave a comment below that includes an irrefutable proof why our world can not be a virtual world. It’s harder than you think (and no, “42” is not an acceptable answer).

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Comments (9)

  1. If 42 is not an acceptable answer, there’s no acceptable question. Or else.

  2. The universe-as-computation theory is definitely getting more popular, but there are some fundamental differences between the world as we understand it and computation. Computation is a process by which we use the fact that one system is rule governed to infer facts about the behavior of another rule governed system. For example, an abacus is governed by rules like "the beads don’t merge together when you’re not looking," so we can use them to do finite math with natural numbers. Similarly, we can make inferences about how a plane will fly by using a wind tunnel model. If the rules of the wind tunnel weren’t easily converted to the rules of real airplanes, we couldn’t use them to predict how our planes will fly. A desktop computer also informs us about a rule governed world, the worlds of Windows, Mac, and Linux together with their applications. Those OSes and applications may all seem random, but ultimately they have a deterministic core that the physical silicon hardware of our computer helps us realize.

    So, back to the question of "Is the universe a computation?" If the universe is a computation, it is a fundamentally different one from all the other computations we encounter. All the other kinds of computations have a physical basis that does the predicting of the mathematical world. If the universe as a whole is a computation, then there is no physical basis for the physical world. I won’t deny the possibility of this outright, but I think it’s worth pointing out how very different that is from everything else we’ve experienced computationally.

    • You’re obviously far more familiar with this question than I am from an analytical point of view, but here’s an attempt at a response.  You observe:

      All the other kinds of computations have a physical basis that does the predicting of the mathematical world. If the universe as a whole is a computation, then there is no physical basis for the physical world. I won’t deny the possibility of this outright, but I think it’s worth pointing out how very different that is from everything else we’ve experienced computationally.

      I think that "computational" concepts might be a red herring here as well, as there’s no reason to assume when we’re getting this far off the reservation (or planet, for that matter) to assume that computational models have any empirical relevance.  After all, they are a product of our perceived reality as well.  Because we are who we are (or think we are) we are by nature limited to understanding what we have been made able to understand, given the tools that are available to our powers of reasoning.  As a result, the best way to use the powers of reasoning we have, subject to that limitation, is to take nothing we "know" as a given.

      Stated another way, if one were to say "let there be an attractive force between two objects, and let the effect of that force be manifested as follows," that would be consistent both with what we observe, as well as the randomness of why objects accelerate (on earth) at the rate of 32 feet per second squared (and not 33 feet), and why an atmosphere is 14.7 pounds per square inch (and not 15).  Why 32?  Well, why not 32, if it’s just a standard, the same way that we have 40, 60, 90 (and so on) watt lightbulbs, instead of 48, 70 and 100 watt bulbs.  Who cares?  They just have to be something, at usefully spaced intervals.  That’s what performance standards are all about, and what is gravity but the implementation of a …?

      Presumably the same applies no matter what the example.  When we look at silicon (I’m getting out of my depth here, I admit) we’re talking, I assume, about how carbon atoms form lattices with resulting enabling effects, but we still haven’t gotten down to the bottom of the stack of turtles to find out what a subatomic particle (or its parts) really "are," if in fact they "are" anythings at all…other than computational rules (or standards, as I’m calling them). 

      It seems to me that if in fact there were to be something serious to the question that I posit, then the only thing that we know is that we don’t empirically know anything – we just know what our world manifests, and the rules that we extract from those observations.  So the best approach would be to assume that nothing we know as a limitation is in fact a physical limitation in any ultimate sense, because it’s merely a parameter, or standard, controlling observable physical behaviors.  And that would apply equally to everything we know, or think we know, about computation.

        –  Andy

  3. When I was a child, we imagined it this way:

    What if the universe and everything in it including our lives is just a dream that God is having? What happens when he wakes up?

    I think it gets too hard to follow all the possibilities once you take the "what if our world is not real" route.  Therefore, I will remain firmly in the "our world is real" camp, with or without any reason to believe it.  😉


    • Indeed, irrefutable proof for basic assumptions are generally very hard.

      Give me irrefutable proof for free will.

      Luckily, neither science nor religion have ever needed irrefutable proof. I reccommend Occam’s razor if going the scientific way, else religion will happily allow more detailed descriptions of God / Universe Engineer(s).

      • Actually, I almost included a reference to Occam’s Razor in the context of a Theory of Everything and string theory.  Occam would advise us to quit trying, and just assume the designer fudged it.

        Thought-based searches for "irrefutable proof" (a/k/a philosophy) are, of course, mind games at best.  It’s rare, if ever, that they lead to any truly convincing results.  So I posed the question as an intellectual exercise rather than in the hope that we’d be likely to find an alternative, and more detailed, explanation than "42" here in this humble venue.

          –  Andy

  4. Regarding virtual worlds, I guess you’d need a three-part system: a server on your computer that provides preferred values for your attributes, a processing system on a remote server that takes this information and fits you into the virtual world according to its specialised rules, and a client on your computer that displays the result. That way you’d "own" your avatar, and could move between worlds at will. Throw in a bit of cryptography and you’d have a verified identity server to boot.

    Regarding our world, I’d give the following Argument from Bureaucratic Incompetence:

    1) Sentience can arise using the number of fundamental objects (e.g. atoms) in the average human

    2) As sentience is a useful trait that would be selected for by evolution, this is likely to be close to the required number of FOs. If microscopic intelligent entities could exist, they’d be all around us.

    3) And, if microscopic intelligent entities were all around us, they’d wipe us out. A sentient creature that was more than a few orders of magnitude larger than us couldn’t evolve as it would be preceded by smaller sentient creatures that would kill it.

    4) Therefore, any evolved intelligence must contain roughly the same number of FOs as us, give or take a few orders of magnitude. We’re going to be dealing with approximately human-size creatures here.

    5) The computers that the alien programmers are using will be made up of the same FOs as the aliens are. This places an upper bound on the amount of universe that can be simulated by a given mass of computer.

    6) There is an upper bound on the mass of computer that can be economically supported by a single alien.

    7) There is an upper bound on the number of aliens that can be organised into a coherent social structure without major diseconomies of scale.

    8) Therefore there is a limit on the amount of computing power available to any civilisation.

    9) The amount of computing power necessary to simulate the known universe is absolutely ridiculous. I mean really really stupidly large. It’s almost certainly greater than anything a single coherent group can produce.

    10) Therefore the universe is probably not a simulation. If it were, the bureaucrats would have axed it for lack of funding by now.

    • ROFL !

      Well, for all of the precision of argument, you’ve assumed that all microscopic (or nano or whatever) organisms/lifeforms/intelligences will eliminate any competition – that is true about organisms discovered _so far_.
      Who knows what we will be thinking when "microscopic angels start revealing themselves" 😉
      Seen "The Abyss" ?
      More seriously, it is generally humans who tend to prefer total elimination of lower life forms just for fun (as against hunting for food) so often. So many symbiotic systems exist in nature.

      And yes, where’s the "life tax" and "Existence IP license" we should now start expecting anytime…..

  5. I think that the important thing here is not the state of reality but the reality according to the individual. The question then becomes not "what is my life?" but "what do I do with my life?". Solomon, the wisest man on earth if you believe the story, said this: "There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink, and to find enjoyment in their work. I also perceived that this ability to find enjoyment comes from God. For no one can eat and drink or experience joy apart from him." Eccl 2:24

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