Jan 24, 2023 I Brent Swancer

Escaping the Matrix: Could We Hack or Escape a Simulated Reality?

Since the dawn of human consciousness we have pondered and wondered upon the nature of our reality and where we sit within it. It has been what has given rise to religions and philosophies since time unremembered, an unanswered question that has driven the greatest minds of history. One pervasive modern idea on the nature of reality is that everything we see and do is part of a vast, complex simulation run by humans from far in the future, AI, or even aliens using hyper-advanced computers, and that you, I, and everyone around us are all living in essentially one massive and super sophisticated virtual reality program that perfectly mimics physical reality. Although bandied about for years, this idea, called the “The Simulation Hypothesis,” was first definitively formed and cemented in the public awareness in 2003, by University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who proposed that our ancestors far in the future may have reached a point in computing technology in which they are able to create whole virtual worlds populated by artificial intelligence programs that exist digitally, us, for the purpose of perhaps recreating different eras of their past or their evolutionary history for their own study or amusement, it is impossible to know. Whatever their purpose, Bostrom speculated that there could feasibly be vast numbers of these virtual simulations being run by our descendants, aliens, or even those created by other simulations, making us possibly computer simulations within other more advanced computer simulations, which could in turn be simulations of others themselves. This then leads to the question that, if this is all indeed a hyper-advanced computer program, then could it be somehow hacked by us and could we even possibly devise a way to escape its confines? Let's take a look.

Considering the almost absolute certainty that we will one day achieve the technology to produce ever more complex simulations, and that these would potentially spawn countless other simulated worlds and minds that would eventually far outnumber those of the original creators, Bostrum argued that there was a statistically much higher chance that we are among the simulated rather than the original biological minds that started the whole thing, or what is often called the “base reality.” If this were the case, and our physical bounds were decided by and even occasionally changed or manipulated by these creators, then trying to understand the universe we inhabit would be less like science and more like a video game character trying to figure out the operating system their “game” is running on. We would have no idea if the rules of reality as we know it are set or even real to begin with and would be at the whim of some sort of source code.

If all of this is true, and we are indeed living in some advanced simulation that perfectly mimics the physical world to make it indistinguishable from reality, and we are truly like video game characters in a game, then there is also the question of, like with other computer programs, whether we can hack it. This is a question that has been pondered by simulation theorists in recent years, and one of these is Dr. David Anderson, a computer scientist, SETI enthusiast, and mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley. It started as a simple thought experiment, with Anderson musing that if we do live in a computer program, then we may have a chance to hack it through a hypothetical simulation program he calls “Unisym.” He said of it in an interview with the New York Times:

Being a programmer, I thought about exactly what these changes might involve. Unisym is just software, and if it’s well-written it should be easy to modify. Modifications could change our laws of physics, or add new ‘features’ to our universe: menu options, buttons to push, knobs to fiddle with. Things to make our lives richer or more fun.

He began to consider this in more detail, pondering whether the Unisym would be quantum in nature or digital, how it would work, who or what could be hosting it, whether it is open source, that is, publicly available for other programmers to inspect and manipulate, and even if the ones behind it are able to hear and take requests from the ones living in it. He speculates that what he calls the “meta-hackers” might field and consider “pull requests,” or changes to the source code, from our universe within the simulation. In a way, this would be a sort of futuristic version of praying to a higher power, only in this case instead of some god or deity, it is to whoever or whatever created our simulation. If they were listening and granted our wishes, then reality could be altered to whatever we wished, be that immortality, time travel, or anything else we desire, the only limit being our imagination. Anderson even carried out a poll in which he asked friends and colleagues what they would wish for, and Dennis Overbye of the New York Times writes of this:

Dr. Anderson recently polled his colleagues to ask how they would tweak the cosmic algorithm, which he calls Unisym. He posted the responses on his blog, along with comments on how these changes might be put in effect and how well they might work. "This was during Covid, when I was filling my ample free time by writing various essays on philosophy, politics and music and putting them on my website,” he said. The emphasis was not on eliminating war and injustice but on features that might help us cosmic small fry to navigate the vicissitudes of “life. For example, Dr. Anderson would like to be able to click a button and view all of the footsteps he has ever taken, glowing orange on the ground. “I can see where I’ve been in Berkeley and go to the Sierras and I can see all the hikes I’ve taken there,” he said. Clicking another button would highlight all of the footprints ever made. “Are there places no one has ever been?” he wondered.

His son, he added, would like to know if a joke he was about to tell would get a good laugh. Some feature requests from his other respondents: the ability to pause the simulation long enough to think up a snappy retort in conversation, or a rewind option to undo a regrettable remark or revisit a missed opportunity, something I would definitely up-vote. For my part, I’d like to be able to hit a button upon entering a restaurant that would drop a cone of silence over every other table. (My hearing isn’t what it used to be.) My wife said she would like for a hologram of her to appear whenever she was late to some appointment, and then disappear when she actually arrived, so that nobody would know she had been absent. A popular modification is what Dr. Anderson calls “the look of death,” the ultimate expression of road rage: With a blink of your eyes, you could doom offending drivers and their cars to be incinerated by a powerful laser.

Is there anything to this? Another scientist who has considered the idea of hacking our simulation is Roman V. Yampolskiy, a computer scientist at the University of Louisville who is known for his work on behavioral biometrics, the security of cyberworlds, and artificial intelligence safety. Yampolskiy has taken it a step further than Anderson in that he believes that if we are living in a computer simulation, then not only would we be able to hack it to change reality, but that we may even be able to hack our way out of it. He originally posed the question, “Could generally intelligent agents placed in virtual environments jailbreak out of them?,” and he would go on to examine every angle of this conundrum. He says of the idea of hacking the simulation to escape:

Ignoring pseudoscientific interest in a topic, we can observe that in addition to several respected thinkers who have explicitly shared their probability of believe with regards to living in a simulation (ex. Elon Musk >99.9999999%, Nick Bostrom 20-50%, Neil deGrasse Tyson 50%, Hans Moravec “almost certainly”, David Kipping <50%), many scientists and philosophers have invested their time into thinking, writing, and debating on the topic indicating that they consider it at least worthy of their time. If they take the simulation hypothesis seriously, with probability of at least p, they should likewise contemplate on hacking the simulation with the same level of commitment. Once technology to run ancestor simulations becomes widely available and affordable it should be possible to change the probability of us living in a simulation by running sufficiently large number of historical simulations of our current year, and by doing so increasing our indexical uncertainty. If one currently commits to running enough of such simulations in the future, our probability of being in one can be increased arbitrarily until it asymptotically approaches 100%, which should modify our prior probability for the simulation hypothesis. Of course, this only gives us an upper bound, and the probability of successfully discovering an escape approach is likely a lot lower. What should give us some hope is that most known software has bugs and if we are in fact in a software simulation such bugs should be exploitable. (Even the argument about the Simulation Argument had a bug in it.)

First of all, he says it is important to understand what motive one would have to want to escape to begin with and to what ends it would serve. Why would we want to get out and what would it achieve in the end? If we can accept this as reality and it is indistinguishable from the “real world” to the point that we accept it as real, then why would we want to leave it and head out into the unknown beyond the veil? He has said of this:

First, we need to address the question of motivation, why would we want to escape from the simulation? We can propose several reasons for trying to obtain access to the baseline reality as there are many things one can do with such access which are not otherwise possible from within the simulation. Base reality holds real knowledge and greater computational resources allowing for scientific breakthroughs not possible in the simulated universe. Fundamental philosophical questions about origins, consciousness, purpose, and nature of the designer are likely to be common knowledge for those outside of our universe. If this world is not real, getting access to the real world would make it possible to understand what our true terminal goals should be and so escaping the simulation should be a convergent instrumental goal of any intelligent agent. With a successful escape might come drives to control and secure base reality. Escaping may lead to true immortality, novel ways of controlling superintelligent machines or serve as plan B if control is not possible, avoiding existential risks including unprovoked simulation shutdown, unlimited economic benefits, and unimaginable superpowers which would allow us to do good better. Also, if we ever find ourselves in an even less pleasant simulation escape skills may be very useful. Trivially, escape would provide incontrovertible evidence for the simulation hypothesis.

If successful escape is accompanied by the obtainment of the source code for the universe, it may be possible to fix the world at the root level. For example, hedonistic imperative may be fully achieved resulting in a suffering-free world. However, if suffering elimination turns out to be unachievable on a world-wide scale, we can see escape itself as an individual’s ethical right for avoiding misery in this world. If the simulation is interpreted as an experiment on conscious beings, it is unethical, and the subjects of such cruel experimentation should have an option to withdraw from participating and perhaps even seek retribution from the simulators. The purpose of life itself could be seen as escaping from the fake world of the simulation into the real world, while improving the simulated world, by removing all suffering, and helping others to obtain real knowledge or to escape if they so choose. Ultimately if you want to be effective you want to work on positively impacting the real world not the simulated one. We may be living in a simulation, but our suffering is real.

In order to hack our way out, Yampolskiy also suggests that how difficult it would be would be largely based on what purpose the simulation serves. Is it a sort of virtual prison? Is it an entertainment program or a way for its creators to peruse history and store knowledge of past eras? Or is it something else altogether? According to Yampolskiy, the type of simulation would likrly have a huge impact on how we would be able to hack out, and he says:

Figuring out the purpose of our simulation may help us to better estimate how secure it might be against hacking attempts. For example, if it serves as a “prison,” for rehabilitation purposes or a containment environment for evaluation, training or handicapping of potentially dangerous intelligent agents it might be designed with multiple integrated security features, while a purely entertainment-focused simulation is unlikely to have advanced security features and would be much easier to escape from. It may also be the ultimate Escape Game (Escape Room) specifically designed for discovering clues and solving puzzles in order to escape, with a side benefit of discovering agents capable of escaping or those most capable of developing a superintelligence. Scientific, commercial, expediated training or historical exploration-based simulations are another possible purpose of simulations and would likely not integrate top security as compared to simulations confining malevolent agents.

Given primacy of consciousness in our world it may also be designed to generate large number of diverse experiences to select from, serving as a qualia mining farm, with top experience recreated for enjoyment by simulators. Qualia mining simulations can be classified as a type of entertainment simulation and would have comparable security. If our simulators are AIs (which is likely the simulation may be a byproduct of their “thinking” process, for example in the context of trying to better understand human preferences). In addition to purpose, determining the type of the simulation we are dealing with may be necessary for a successful breach. We can postulate two main types of simulations we could be in; partial-simulation in which a virtual environment is simulated and into which non-simulated agents are immersed, akin to what we call Virtual Reality (VR), and full-simulation in which both environment and agents (us) are generated. A partial-simulation implies that triggering a shutdown may be sufficient to get back to the base reality, while a full-simulation would require a more sophisticated approach.

So let’s say we have the will to escape this virtual reality and are ready to go. How do we go about it? Yampolskiy has laid out several possible ways to pull off such a “jailbreak,” ranging from hacking the source code or finding and exploiting glitches, to overloading the simulation somehow, creating bugs that would distract the programmers, causing a simulation shutdown (and hopefully our extraction) by generating an incomputable paradox or through some other means, attracting the notice of the simulators, or even directly contacting them, appealing to them, or gaining help from someone from outside in the real world, to name a few. Of course, he also warns that attempting to escape could have grave consequences, and that it could lead to the simulators wiping our memories, rebooting the system, or even shutting it down entirely. He also says that there may be nothing we can do to escape, as the simulation may be so advanced and sophisticated that it is beyond our ability to even comprehend, of which he says:

The reason our attempts to escape may remain fruitless, is because our model of the simulation makes too many anthropomorphic assumptions - that we are a simulation in the conventional sense of computers, that the creators themselves are living organisms akin to us, that we might live at the same time-speed as them, that they are fallible enough to make glitches that we'd be able to notice, etc. Something with the complexity and power to make our universe is probably wholly unlike anything we can even comprehend.

This is all assuming of course that this proposed simulation even exists at all. Although there are quite a few respectable scientists, futurists and thinkers who seriously consider this as anywhere from a possibility to a near certainty, others are not so sure. There have been skeptics of the simulation theory who say this is all nothing more than a neat thought experiment, and point out that not only is there absolutely no evidence of any of it, but that embracing the idea that we are living in a simulation too much could even be dangerous to society. Dartmouth College physics and philosophy scholar and a Templeton prize laureate Marcelo Gleiser thinks that the idea of a simulated universe is not only nonsensical, but also could lead to dangerous lines of thinking, of which he has said:

It’s way too convenient to blame our current mess on powers beyond our control. In fact, this sort of 'not my fault' sounds a lot like the religious 'it’s God’s will.' Not our fault, not our responsibility, 'they' are doing this to us. When dealing with the actions of an unknown intelligence the essential question is their 'Why.' And we have no intuition whatsoever about their intentionality, as we hardly have about ours. After all, if it’s all a big game that we can’t control, why bother? What difference could my actions or sense of purpose make? This is the danger with this kind of nihilistic philosophical argument, to turn us into what it’s claiming we are, so that we give up our will to fight for what we believe in and change what must be changed. Let us make sure that we don’t confuse conjectured philosophical arguments with our very real socio-political reality, especially now.

Nevertheless, although most who endorse the idea of a simulated universe concede that it is at this point merely hypothetical, there are those who believe that it is an area worthy of serious study. There are those actively trying to find ways to actively prove that this is indeed a simulated reality and the area has in recent years gone from a fun discussion topic to one that more and more scientists are pursuing as a real field of study. Yampolskiy believes that it is imperative that we take the idea seriously and actively pursue research in the matter, and that his ideas on hacking and escaping the program are not to be taken lightly. He has said on the matter:

Hundreds of eminent scholars take the simulation hypothesis seriously enough to invest their valuable time into researching it, therefore it makes as much sense to take the idea of escaping from the simulation equally seriously and to devote some time and resources to researching such possibility, particularly given immense benefits if the project is successful. It may be impossible to escape from a particular simulation, but it is still worth while investigating general approaches to escape from arbitrary simulations. We see our escape research as a natural continuation of research on the simulation hypothesis and serious consideration of the former. The purpose of life or even computational resources of the base reality can’t be determined from within the simulation, making escape a necessary requirement of scientific and philosophical progress for any simulated civilization. If the simulation is a personal universe it may be significantly better than the base reality as it is designed with our optimal well-being in mind. Alternatively, base reality might be much better if the simulation is a confinement/testing box for intelligent agents. In either case it would be good to know our true situation. As the society moves deeper into the metaverse, this work attempts to move us closer to reality.

Indeed, although all of this talk of living in a virtual reality may all seem to be fairly far-out, the basic idea has been latched onto and pondered and debated on by a surprising number of philosophers, futurists, technologists, and physicists. One of the most high-profile advocates of the idea that we live in a simulated reality is none other than the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk, who has suggested that it is inevitable that the technology to create virtual worlds that are indistinguishable from reality will be created, and that since this will most certainly happen then we almost certainly live in one such construct, saying, “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality.” As evidence, Musk points to the astronomical advancement of computer technology in recent years, saying:

Forty years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.

The idea is similar to what Bostrum originally postulated back in 2003; that our incredibly fast-paced progression of technology will lead to a world in which not only will we create conscious programs, but that artificial entities living in simulated worlds will one day outnumber actual biological human beings. This follows that if there are so many more artificial minds than biological ones, the probability that we are in the original reality dwindles dramatically. Some scientists even argue that our being a simulation would be a much simpler explanation for our existence than that we started as a hodgepodge of colliding molecules that took shape amongst the primordial ooze of our planet’s origins to eventually lead to the intelligent beings we are today.

With a lack of any sort of concrete data or evidence it all remains simply a neat idea and speculation into the nature of our reality, as we have done since more or less when we were able to do so, although it is picking up more and more traction as a viable avenue of research. Is reality as we think we know it? Are we biological beings interacting with a universe rooted in the physical world, or are we merely a program running for some inscrutable purpose by some superior version of ourselves or even other entities altogether? If so, could we possibly be able to hack it or even escape it? How will we ever know if any of this is true or not? The answers will probably remain vague yet intriguing, and although we will most likely never know, or be allowed to know for sure, it is an avenue into the nature of our reality and very existence that will likely be brought up, pondered and debated for some time to come.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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