Remember SimCity? Alright, the latest iteration in the series wasn't brilliant, but SimCity 3000 is an all time classic, and we've spent more hours than we'd care to admit constructing the city of our dreams.
And that got us thinking: what if London was a computer simulation? Is our city lived out on the screen of some SimCity player? Crossrail constructed with the drag of a mouse, skyscrapers springing up with the click of a button — it might sound ludicrous, but if you do a little digging, it's not all that implausible...
Moore's law is the observation that computing power doubles roughly every two years. Now, for those of us without PhDs in computer science, that's not a very easy thing to imagine, so let's picture this in a different way: with video games.
Whereas Pong was once the crème de la crème of the gaming world, the titles we're playing today allow us to live out fully fledged lives inside virtual worlds — whether that be living the dream in Grand Theft Auto's Los Santos, or indeed, building a city of your very own in SimCity. Things have changed a lot, and they've changed fast.
Now that virtual reality technology is here, the world of gaming is more realistic than ever. We're already building and participating in lifelike worlds — who'd have thought you'd ever get the chance to slide down the side of The Shard?
Even if one assumes that this pace of change can't keep up forever, one thing is for sure: technology always moves forward, even if the rate of progress is slowing down. At some point, then, computers will be able to simulate worlds so realistic, and so complex, that they'll be indistinguishable from reality — and the conscious characters living inside the simulation wouldn't even realise it was one.
Could that be us? Could London be that simulation?
Well, it all sounds pretty unlikely, doesn't it?
Some, like Elon Musk, would say the opposite — he reckons that there's only a one in billions chance that we live in base reality, and not a simulation. Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor from Oxford University, published a paper in 2003 that explains why. In it, he argues that one of the following three statements must be true:
- Any civilisation that is capable of creating hyper-realistic simulations will go extinct before they reach the technological capability.
- Any civilisation with the technological capability is uninterested in doing so.
- We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
With the rate of current progress, we can fairly comfortably rule out statement two — after all, we're always chasing technological improvement, and it doesn't seem likely that we'll lose interest in doing so. Therefore, there remains two options: either every civilisation dies out before it gets a chance to create hyper-realistic simulations, or we're probably the civilisation living in one.
Suddenly, option three doesn't seem so implausible. If we're sure, as humans, that we'll one-day reach the point of hyper-realistic simulation, who's to say that another civilisation hasn't got there first and created us?
And if we think back to some of our own creations in SimCity, London starts to make a lot more sense. The congestion, the lack of affordable housing, the delays, the cuts to public services... heck, we've had all these problems in our cities too, and we don't always get it perfect. To be in charge of London, and every individual within it, must be like playing SimCity on hard mode.
Perhaps we should give our overlords some more time to work it out.