Are We In A Videogame, Or Something Else?

A prominent theme in both science fiction and advanced physics is the possibility that our lives are not truly our lives, that everything we thought was true was an elaborate lie—that this reality is not what we think it is. The most popular articulation of that theme is that we are part of a scientific experiment, a simulation. 

Even before the Matrix science fiction series, the idea that humans were experiments or simulations took hold in short stories and novels (it was the twist of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). But things got interesting last year, when Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrum published a paper arguing for three possible explanations of reality, one of which suggested that since advanced civilizations would have the ability to create many simulations of reality, there would be more simulated worlds than non-simulated worlds, and thus there was a good possibility we were living in a simulated one. The same year, 2019, computer scientist Rizwan Vok published a book with the provocative title The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics, and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are In A Video Game. 

The argument even got a creative boost from Elon Musk who, when he wasn’t freaking out about the apocalyptic potential of artificial life, was pontificating that we’ve gone from unsophisticated games like Pong to “photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.” And, he continues, given the billions of combinations of video game setups using such realistic technology, “it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.” Not a precise or even cogent argument, but one that points out the reasonability of doubting our own authenticity. 

The “we’re in a video game” hypothesis has one big problem: Why? This is what physicist Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth asks regarding Bostrum’s articulation of the argument. Why would an advanced society run a simulation about a less-advanced society? Anything they could learn from doing so could be gleaned in more efficient ways. So if we’re concerned about the motives of third party actors—or simulators—then we are likely to find the hypothesis inadequate. 

In fact, both Musk and Gleiser ignore an important additional possibility: That we may be in a sort of simulation, but it’s a simulation of the premodern, not the postmodern. We could be characters in a psychedelic vision: a dream-state induced by mushrooms or other psychedelics. What’s more—that collective vision could be quantum. 

How do you figure? Well, psilocybin produces a brain-state like the brain-state of actual dreaming. Another naturally-occurring chemical, DMT, creates visual hallucinations that are almost universally described as trips into alternate reality or dimensions, like elaborate dreams.  So call this the dream hypothesis: our lives are psychedelic dreams featuring ourselves and others as characters. Maybe we’re all having hallucinations; maybe we are the hallucinations. 

Where does quantum reality come in? Quantum reality is very much like a dream, and some of the more dream-like, un-logical facets of advanced quantum theory, like form-shifting neutrinos capable of having two identities at once, a common dream phenomena. At least one thinker believes dreams may be interactions between quantum parallel worlds. 

For some reason, the psychedelic quantum dream hypothesis sits better with me than the “we’re inside some alien’s PlayStation” hypothesis, and not because, as Terrance McKenna would have put it, mushrooms take us back to the premodern in order to push us forward into the postmodern. What mainly inspires me about the dream hypothesis is how easily it could descend into a (hopefully) delightful chaos, like the scene in the animated movie Rarg where, having discovered the kingdom inhabited by the characters was a sleeping man’s dream, everyone begins turning into pink flamingos. 

Furry, Feathered or Otherwise Non-Human Electoral Candidates in Fact and Fiction

Humans have been imagining non-human animals as human for at least 40,000 years and probably longer. The “Lion-Human” of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany is 32,000 years old. We have invented non-human beings who stand for human traits, and anthropomorphized imaginary animals. We have even integrated non-human animals into human activities (think of all the driving dog anecdotes and don’t laugh but there are projects underway to teach dogs to drive) as a way of deconstructing the supposed human-centric complexities that make humans uniquely equipped to run the world. As long as there has been political satire, satirists have portrayed the fallibility of human political activity through the lens of non-human animals, free to exaggerate the gestures and tendencies we find irritating in each other as political agents. 

In the real world, and just confining the phenomena to the United States (there are numerous instances elsewhere), many localities appear open to non-human municipal leadership. A black lab was elected mayor of Sunol, California in 1981; a golden retriever won the same position for life in Idyllwild, California in 2014; not to be outdone, a cat won the mayorship of Omena, Michigan in 2018. In 2019 in Fair Haven, Vermont, the mayoral contest came down to a Nubian goat and a Samoyed dog, and the goat won by two votes. Party-level elections have animal attraction as well: a mule named Boston Curtis won a Republican precinct seat in Washington in 1938–unanimously, 51 votes to zero.

There have been many more nonhuman candidates than electeds. Given how easy it would be to exclude these beings from ballots legislatively, one could conclude that municipalities’ acceptance of the occasional canine mayor (or in the case of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, canine mayors in perpetuity since 1998) serve as a performative critique of politics taking itself too seriously. 

While non-human electeds in the real world may serve as satire for the political process, in children’s literature, many anthropomorphized animals have served as learning devices and satirical targets centered around the personalities of the candidates and the complexities of holding elected office. There’s President Squid, by Aaron Reynolds (illustrated by Sarah Varon), about a cephalopod who is the epitome of egotistical candidates (reason number four: presidents love to talk, and Squid talks all the time). And Paul Czajak’s Monster Needs Your Vote (illustrated by Wendy Grieb) offers up an animal pol with good intentions, who changes his platform in response to other people’s feedback, to focus more on education and literacy.

But ruling the pond is definitely the 2004 book Duck for President, by the acclaimed Click, Clack, Moo team of writer Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin. Duck gets fed up with what he perceives as Farmer Brown’s autocratic rule and decides to run for leader of the farm. Because no self-respecting duck would run for office without doing some research, he visits his mayor and governor’s offices, then the White House. He returns having decided that serving in office is too much work, all complexity and no fun. First Lady Laura Bush read this book to children on the White House lawn in 2007. This was not perceived as ironic by anyone.

Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote: “There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.” The history of animals in American electoralism in fact and fiction suggests that this may not always be due to assumptions of our own superiority.

Robots May Gain The Right to Vote, But Can They Electioneer?

This is not about the potential of Android phones to facilitate voting. It’s about whether the other kind of android⁠—the artificially intelligent robot type⁠—would not only have the abstract right to vote, but would have the potential to be a full participant in the electoral process. To “electioneer” means to actively participate in campaigning (or at least passively do so through the wearing of buttons or whatnot–but let’s talk about active campaigning).  

More than a bit has been written about android voting rights. The basic argument is based not simply on AI robots becoming more like humans, but on the progressively thinning line between robots and humans, in bodies as well as minds. But the position on the robot mind is still important. Leading AI scientist Ray Kurzweil says robots will gain “consciousness” by 2029. Elon Musk wants to ensure that such conscious artificial beings are “friendly.” Perhaps extending voting rights would be an acceptable olive branch. Whatever one considers to be the main arguments for and against AI robot suffrage, we’ve heard the case made. 

But there are two other questions. The less predictable one, but more relevant to those of us who work in campaigns, is whether AI robots would be involved in campaigning in addition to simply voting. It’s an extension of that right, though: although there are instances (including the increasingly controversial policies of some states to disenfranchise felons) in which one may not vote but still might choose to campaign, philosophically the right to vote generates the enthusiasm and interest of the citizen in campaigning. Will campaigns be able to hire robot consultants? Welcome robot volunteers? 

The immediate objection is that an AI unit with a quantum processor could make all sorts of predictions pertaining to voter geographies or demographics. It could also develop strategic microtargeting algorithms similar to those practiced by politicians around the world since 2016, techniques that have basically bypassed the deliberative process of campaigning to spread negative messaging, disinformation, and more, overwhelming the ability of fact-checkers to scrutinize campaign messages.  Of course, if nations were to pass laws prohibiting data-driven social media microtargeting, they would presumably also prohibit robots from doing it. Other than that scenario, we may be looking to a future where candidates could recruit armies of robot volunteers who could go door-to-door without getting tired, keep making phone calls without wanting to stab themselves in the ears after 2 hours, and so on. 

The more predictable question is whether androids could run for office. Isaac Asimov published a short story, “Evidence,” about allegations that a politician and mayoral candidate named Stephen Byerly is actually a robot. But Asimov doesn’t resolve the question of whether the laws existing in his universe (which prohibit robots running in elections) are just or unjust. Instead, Byerly’s identity is never completely resolved, but some characters speculate that android elected officials would not be a bad thing. 
Of course Asimov’s three laws of robotics effectively undermine any feasible scenario of robots running for office. In particular, the imperative that a robot must obey human beings’ orders would strip a robotic leader of any effective agency or leadership ability. At the very least, any scenario involving robots as elected officials requires jettisoning Asimov’s laws. And I suspect that the “following orders” law will be hard for those of us in the real world to let go of as we move closer to autonomous AI.  It appears more likely that robots, when they develop consciousness, will make themselves useful helping human candidates win, rather than trying to win office themselves–unless some kind of robot-proletarian revolt comes to pass.

A Black Hole’s Gravity is Like a Spirograph

Space and time are not fixed–or more accurately, seemingly fixed or regular movement across spacetime is actually “warped.” That warping causes the trajectory of motion to manifest as dynamic rather than nondynamic. A straight line is never really a straight line, and a regular orbit is never really a regular orbit. Before Albert Einstein developed the theory of general relativity, we could not explain, for example, the small anomalies in planetary orbits that should have been “regular” and unvarying according to Newtonian physics. 

The antecedents of general relativity and black holes (the real testing grounds of general relativity) were laid down long before Einstein’s articulation—around 1783 to be exact, by a clergyman named John Mitchell, and then again in 1796 by the scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. They called them “dark stars” and later “frozen stars.” The idea was that in a star’s “last phase” of existence, under gravitational collapse, nothing would be able to escape that massive object’s gravitational pull, not even light. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that John Wheeler coined the phrase “black hole,” although even after two centuries, the term “dark star” connoted the same meaning.

In very simple terms, Einstein’s theory of general relativity provides several ways in which objects in orbit, and two objects exerting gravitational force on each other, will move dynamically rather than rotely or statically. Orbits “precess forwards in the plane of motion,” as one astrophysicist puts it.

So although it wasn’t a great surprise to scientists that a star circling a black hole would exhibit a dynamic orbit, there was still a profound elegance to the flower-like shape we can trace in its orbit. Astronomers at the Max Planck Institute in Munich monitored the star, called 52, for 27 years via the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. They determined that it traces a “rosette.” This pattern occurs because the gravitational pairing remains dynamic even in the regularity of the orbit it facilitates. Ashley Strickland, writing for CNN, points out that this is the first time astronomers have ever studied a star “orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.”

In an instance of mathematical art imitating gravitational life, the rosetta orbit traces an oscillating pattern called a hypotochoid, and that is the mathematical basis for a toy known as the spirograph. The spirograph had already been a drawing device used to produce uniform curves when in the 1960s and 1970s it became a favorite toy and Hasbro trademarked the name. A mathematician named Bruno Abakanowicz invented the spirograph between 1881 and 1900, and others had different versions of it decades before. There are even instructions in a boys’ magazine in 1913 on how to make a “wondergraph”—essentially a much more solid version of a spirigraph—based in the principles of hypotochoids. That’s interesting because Einstein developed the theory of general relativity sometime between 1907 and 1915. 

Once a journalist asked Einstein to explain the theories of relativity in simple terms.Einstein responded: “If you don’t take my words too seriously, I would say this: If we assume that all matter would disappear from the world, then, before relativity, one believed that space and time would continue existing in an empty world. But, according to the theory of relativity, if matter and its motion disappeared there would no longer be any space or time.” One wonders if he also could have said that relativity is what causes you to draw a flower pattern when you might otherwise think you are only tracing a circle.

Truly Toxic Speech: When It Comes to Pandemics, We Really Talk Too Much

This was already in the news last December, and not in the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic. A UC-Davis study had found that “the louder people talk, the more airborne particles they emit, making loudness a potential factor in spreading airborne diseases.” Particle emission during talking had other factors, but loudness was a consistent indicator of emissions. In fact, and this is the part that may shock people the most, talking loud emits particles in a fashion similar to sneezing or coughing. The authors of the study did mention the role of loud talking in transmitting influenza generally, but that makes sense because various strains of influenza are among the most contagious and serious of illnesses across populations.

Skip ahead to a White House briefing in April 2020, when, Victor Tangermann reports, a “prestigious scientific panel” told officials that Covid-19 could be spread by talking. Again, this was one piece of a range of observed transmission methods that included just normal breathing, “bioaerosols generated directly by patients’ exhalation,” and a much greater risk indoors than outdoors. For those who had wondered about the utility of wearing masks for potential transmitters and not receivers, the muffled talking that occurs behind the mask must have seemed to be a pretty benign force compared to people loudly jawing off and possibly infecting someone.

But all this might raise concern that when we get back to whatever near-to-normal we might get, the workplace will no longer be protectable merely by making sure nobody comes in with a cough or fever. Talking itself will transmit the disease. Social distancing will have to continue, unless technology enters the picture to somehow give us either distance without loss of exchange, or exchange that resembles distance.

Let’s start with that artificial distancing, or exchange that resembles distance. How do you create artificial distance, or the safety of distance while still being just a foot or so away from someone? Someone has already designed glass (plexiglass or clear plastic) dividers beween seats on airplanes in a post-pandemic world. Perhaps airplanes are not the only application. Dividers could be placed in between seats at a conference table, or on a panel discussion. This would substantially decrease the risk of transmission in everyday conversations.

Of course, the real alternative is a lot more teleconferencing. And this alternative doesn’t just apply to distance learning. Even if all participants are in the same building or on the same campus, a Zoom meeting can happen in place of a face-to-face, or larger group meeting. The good thing about this solution (besides the fact that loud-talkers can still talk loudly) is that it’s also really good for the environment. This isn’t just because of the decreased carbon footprint that comes from eliminating travel. There’s also the reduction in paper, printer cartridges, ink and toner. And there’s the reduction of plastic and food waste in not having to feed conference attendees.

There is a particularly sad angle on this story about transmission through talking, and it bears on the  evidence that the virus lingers in or travels through the air in some contexts. A group of choir singers in Mount Vernon, Washington met to rehearse. They stayed far apart, and all reported being healthy when they attended practice. Two are now dead of Covid-19. Conferencing technology has its aesthetic limitations, as musicians trying to use it to record or rehearse will quickly learn. In a list of ten forms of pandemic-appropriate collaborative platforms for musicians, one that sticks out is JamKazam, good for both collaborative recording and music teaching. If, as theorists have long told us, technology is merely the extension of body parts, we’ll have to see how much technology can simulate natural exchange while decreasing transmission risks.