Would an alien civilization that evolved within a perfect computer simulation be any less interesting to us than a ‘real’ alien civilization discovered in outer space? This is the fundamental question raised by John Smart’s STEM compression hypothesis, which suggests that humanity and indeed every intelligent species in the universe is moving inexorably toward the solipsism of optimally computerized ‘inner space’. It is one answer to Fermi’s paradox, explaining that the reason we haven’t seen evidence of alien civilizations is not that they don’t exist, but that their growth has taken them in directions that make them less visible to observers.
STEM stands for Space, Time, Energy and Matter, the primary ingredients of the universe through which living things interact. Smart argues that all of these dimensions are being progressively compressed as intelligent life occupies new substrates by the process of evolution. And throwing some Kurzweilian transhumanism into the mix, Smart believes that this process is happening in an exponentially accelerating fashion (locations of activity are getting smaller at an ever-increasing rate). Clearly, Smart’s view is at odds with the traditional space opera stories that we’ve seen so many times in science fiction. Galactic fleets of battlecruisers seem to offer more possibilities for narrative development than a black cube on a desk containing the history and future of all human civilization. But Smart argues that the cube is the more likely outcome:
“[I]intelligent humans have not, and if the STEM compression trend continues, will never venture beyond the biosphere in an autonomous fashion. In each case, we see the next emergent substrate occupying a tiny spatial subset of the previous one. So it will soon be with tomorrows artificially intelligent technology, which will model the birth and death of the universe using highly miniaturized, energy efficient, and local technology.”
So wait a minute, we could just model the universe on an ultra powerful quantum computer, and that would be as satisfying as actually exploring the cosmos? Well, yeah.
Imagine the advantages of creating a simulated universe-in-a-box. For our purposes, it doesn’t even need to be a perfect analog of our own. As long as the simulation designers get the balance of matter and energy right, and the laws of physics identical to ours, we should arrive at much the same result after a simulated “big bang”. Of course, because it is a simulation, we could speed through the boring bits and even pause or rewind the action. We could be co-present at any reference point in the simulation at any time, obviating the need for FTL travel. Of course, the result after 14 billion years of (simulated) time wouldn’t be our universe (although in a sense, it would). But exploring it would be considerably more resource efficient than exploring the macro-scale universe and would offer the same types of thrills and benefits.
If we got the simulated laws of physics and chemistry right, then single-celled organisms might evolve on planets in our universe-in-a-box. Millions of years of genetic algorithms later might produce sentient creatures (or creatures who believed they were sentient enough for it not to make a difference). Because our simulation would contain hundreds of billions of galaxies worth of solar systems, there would be lots of opportunities for such lifeforms to evolve. As the simulation creators, we could observe and catalog each species more intimately than we ever could have done with cumbersome meatspace bodies. But, the galactic adventurers will protest, none of these simulated alien cultures would be real. And that’s true, except that at the macro scale, there might be little difference between what we observe in our simulation and what really exists in the cosmos. Our simulation would allow us to generate a rich data set of observed trends, based on billions of years of evolution. Want to know how biogenesis really works? Our simulation will tell us. Want to know how often it is likely to happen? Our simulation will tell us that too. On a galactic scale, how many civilizations wipe themselves out, and how many make it to the post-scarcity phase? We’ll know the answer. Finally, our universe-in-a-box will reveal precisely what will happen at the end of time, when the universe either falls back in on itself or expands into darkness.
Given a choice of boarding a starship for the dangerous 100-year journey to a nearby star, and accessing a simulation with billions of fascinating alien cultures at my finger tips, the simulated option is suddenly not so unappealing.