Happy New Year From Inside the Simulation: Reflecting on the Nature of Cycles of Time, Free Will and Simulated Beings
I’m writing this on New Year’s Day, 2023, as we begin another cycle around the sun. Of course there isn’t anything special about Dec 31 or Jan 1 from a natural perspective — it’s a relatively arbitrary date based on tradition that happens to be the center point of the western calendar (called the Gregorian Calendar, which was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, replacing the earlier Julian calendar). The Islamic calendar has a different New Year, as does the Chinese calendar, the Mayan calendar.
We are of course used to celebrating the end of one cycle or stage and the beginning of another — with weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, etc. The major stages of our lives in the sim go from birth to puberty to adulthood to old age and to death. The Hindus, for example, lay out four stages of life: Brahmacharya ( student stage), Grihastha (householder stage of life), Vanaprastha (turning to spiritual growth after completing material and family obligations), and Sannyasa (renunciation).
There is of course, a natural cycle that the Earth takes around the sun, and the fact that we are close to the winter solstice (Dec 21, 2022), means that we are roughly following a “natural” cycle in our choice of a new year. You could argue that either of the solstices or the two equinoxes are good dates to think of as starting a new year, because we are literally at the natural inflection points in the Earth’s orbit.
What would the new year or a new cycle mean if we are in a simulation? Well, many games have multiple versions (think The Witcher 2 to the Witcher 3, or the Sims 3 to Sims 4), which could be considered the upgrade or beginning of a new cycle. As games moved online, some started to adopt the seasonal cycle of TV programs (which didn’t really correspond with seasons at all, but roughly corresponded to years back in the day when all the new seasons started in the Fall). Think of Fortnite, which just started Chapter 4, season 1.
For MMORPGs, a new season (or version) represents a major cycle in the lives of a video game, because the software usually has a major upgrade.
Being in a simulation would be more like an on-going MMROPG like World of Warcraft of Fortnite, and less like a move from the Sims 2 to the Sims 3. Online games generally get their software updated seamlessly, either by updating the data on the server or your app downloading the latest version of the app on your phone.
The big question is: if the software was updated, would we know? The answer is that we probably wouldn’t know, unless there were some glitches in the simulation. Like Philip K. Dick’s hero in the Adjustment Team (made into the movie, The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emilly Blunt), most people would be oblivious to the “variables” changed.
However, there is a case where it is possible to know if the software has been updated. In the Adjustment team, the protagonist Ed Fletcher, was supposed to be at work when the team “froze” everyone in the building so they could do an adjustment, not only to the building but to the memories of all the people that worked there. But Ed was late, and he noticed the changes while they were being made, and retained memories of the “old” unadjusted, or we might say, un-upgraded way.
If you update your iOS operating system, you are likely to see some changes since you are not technically inside the mobile OS. The conscious entity called you is “outside” the software of the world.
In the same way, if we are in a 100% NPC simulation (where everyone is an AI), then it would be impossible for us to know if the simulation had changed in some way, unless there were artifacts from the previous simulation as it updated from 2022 to 2023. What kind of artifacts? Like the changes that we suspected might happen in Y2K (but which mostly turned out to be a nothingburger), the software might have artifacts from the previous version. I suspect that if Y2K were happening today, where we are much more reliant on software (and not just concerned with big mainframe systems), there might be a bigger impact.
On the other hand, if we are in an RPG simulation, or a mixed simulation, which contains both PC’s and NPCs, we (the players) might notice that our character and the landscape around it looks different. The character itself may or may not notice. Think of the upgrade to Fortnite or any MMORGP from season 2 to season 3, for example. We the players can see the changes clearly.
What does time within the simulation (i.e. one year) have to do with time outside the simulation?
The fundamental cycle of a computer simulation may have nothing to do with the time that is kept inside the simulation. For example, if you were simulating fruit fly populations, each generation would be considered a year, since that’s when fruit flies would multiply. Actually I know nothing about fruit flies, but you can get the analogy. I could run 5 generations or 5000 generations of fruit fly simulations, which simulate 5 or 5000 years, in 5/100’s of a second (or faster using today’s computers).
The fundamental cycle of a computer system is its clockspeed. You can’t measure anything less than the smallest cycle. That’s not to say that you can’t calculate smaller numbers, it’s just that you can’t do those calculations in less time than the clockspeed of the processor. To simplify, in a computer, one cycle of the CPU runs a single instruction. These instructions are lower-level basic operations that affect registers and bits/voltages across the actually hardware — we used to call this assembly language back in the day. We generally measure the speed of the processor based on MHz or GHz (millions of cycles per second or billions of cycles per second) — again for simplicity you can think of one cycle as one microprocessor instruction.
Scientists believe, based on the smallest distance that it is possible to measure, called the Planck Length, that space has a fundamental unit, a pixel if you will, below which nothing is measurable (or for that matter, meaningful). Scientists don’t know for sure if there is a similar quantized minimum amount of time, though it postulated that the time it takes the speed of light to cross a Planck length, sometimes called the Planck time, may be the minimum amount of time we can effectively measure.
These minimum units don’t mean you can’t calculate numbers smaller than this. For example, the Planck length/2 is a smaller number than the Planck length which we can calculate, but you just can’t measure anything in the real world at that length. Similarly, it’s thought that the Planck time may be the clockspeed of the universe.
In a computer program, we are executing instructions (which are much higher level instructions than those at the assembly level of the microprocessor). However, if our programs are stopped (as they would be in a multi-threaded operating system), and then re-started, we may not know that anything had changed.
In fact, it could have been a million instructions that happened with other programs (think of Microsoft Word while I write this and the browser Chrome I have running in the background, along with Zoom and Skype and slack which are all sitting idle as I write this). The simulators could have stopped the program at Dec 31, 2022 at 11:59 pm (choose your time zone) and upgraded everyone, and started the simulation again, 2023 style!
But I remember 2022 (not to mention 2021 and 2020) quite well, you say. Don’t forget that in a simulation, memories could be just information stored in various memory locations.
So, in essence what I’m saying is that time outside the simulation really has nothing to do with the time inside the simulation. In the same way that the Rick & Morty Episode showed them playing a virtual reality game called “Roy: A Life Well Lived”, where they lived an entire life in only 15 minutes, we might be living our entire life, and each year may only be 1 minute in the outside world, even though it seems like a whole year for us!
Philip K. Dick referred to this as his idea of orthogonal time, which was perpendicular to the time as we experience it, which is linear. If we are in a simulated multiverse, like I described in my book of the same time), then it’s possible we are experiencing the same year again and again, using different parameters that have been changed.
To what end?
Well, why did Rick and Morty play “Roy: A Life Well Lived”? To experience the game and see how far they got. Rick tells Morty after he takes off the virtual reality helmet and shows him his score: 55 years, and tells him he kind of wasted his thirties.
So the reason we play games again and again, and the reason we run simulations again and again, is to try making different choices and see where those get us in the possible paths of the game/simulation. It is useless to run a simulation only once — or to keep re-running it with the same variables. The whole reason to run simulations is to change the variables many times, and the reason to play a video game again is to make different choices and see where it leads you.
Which brings us back to the point of this post: As we complete another cycle, from 2022 to 2023, we might think about the choices we made in the past year. Did they take us to the places we wanted to go? Were there unexpected quests that popped up, or new challenges or characters that changed the entire nature of our game?
Elon Musk pointed out on twitter just today that those who don’t wonder if we are NPC’s might just be NPCs. I prefer to think of us as PCs, player characters, in a multi-player RPG, which means that we have free will and free choice. But that’s no good if we don’t exercise the free will and make different choices now and then.
So, as one cycle of the simulation ends, and another one starts, no matter how many times we have played this game before, we should be aware of the choices that we made in the past, and try to make choices that might get us further along in the video game of life.
And for those of us who have loved ones who are no longer in the simulation, imagine that they are still there, outside of the sim, watching us, keeping an eye on our choices that we make. I know that’s what I’m doing with my father, who left the sim recently, and now visits me in my dreams when my character is asleep.
Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, once said that the secret to making good video games was to make them easy to play, but difficult to master. Those of us who have been in the game for a good many cycles can say that just about describes the game of life too: it’s easy to play but difficult to master!
Happy New Year, Everyone still in the Sim and still playing the game!