I watched Inception last weekend - the first movie I've seen in the theater all year. It’s a great movie, and is a great illustration of the simulation hypothesis. Along with movies like The Matrix and Vanilla Sky, it explores the concept of whether our reality may be a simulation, and if there’s any way to tell the difference.
The reason I often blog about the simulation hypothesis is not merely because it’s an interesting philosophical question, although it certainly is. As Inception illustrates, there are some profound ethical dilemmas we will need to face in the future, when we have both the raw computing power and the understanding of our own neurology to escape to convincing, fictitious worlds.
In Inception, Cobb and Mal dream for decades (in dream-time) in a world of their own creation. Mal goes so far as to hide any evidence that she is dreaming, preferring to forget that their world is not real. When we have the technology to create simulated realities, there will almost certainly be people who want to do this. Even today, many people choose to spend a huge portion of their lives escaping into the crude virtual worlds that our technology allows, such as World of Warcraft. As long as this lifestyle is limited to computer geeks, most people will view it as an unhealthy activity. But when simulated worlds become truly convincing, it is probable that many others will want to join in.
How will society view people who want to spend years or decades in a simulation, living a better life than they have in this world? Will people scorn them like drug addicts? Will organized religions extol simulations as a way to have profound spiritual experiences, or will they be fearful of the threat that simulations pose to their monopoly on heaven? Might there be a mass exodus of people from this world, if nearly everyone prefers to live in a simulation? What would be the economic impact if a large portion of the population suddenly decided to stop working and live in a simulation? Will governments simply accept their choice and allow people to sleep the years away, or will they wake them up? Will those who remain behind envy those who have escaped to a better, simulated life? Perhaps we will empathize with them and respect their decision. (EDIT: I realized I used the pronouns “we” and “them” here to describe, respectively, those who remain behind and those who choose to live in a simulations…but honestly I have no idea which camp I would be in.) After all, how would we feel if we suddenly “woke up” to a higher plane of reality today, only to find that our “real” life was much worse than the one we experience in this world? I imagine that many of us would feel cheated out of our lives like Mal did, and be unable to accept the sudden decline in our standard of living. It seems very human to want to live the best life we possibly can. Since most of us wouldn’t want to wake up to a worse world, I think that eventually society will empathize with the dreamers and accept those who wish to remain lost in their subconscious.
This is but one of many new ethical questions we may have to confront by the middle of this century. Near the end of Inception Mal tells Cobb (who knows full well that he is dreaming), “You no longer believe in a single reality. So choose. Choose to be here with me.” Cobb rejects her offer, choosing to live in “actual reality” instead. While I’m pretty sure that the audience of 2010 is expected to applaud his decision, ultimately Mal is right. In a world where convincing simulations are possible, there is really no way to know if one is in a simulation or not. So why not just accept this and let people live in whatever world makes them happy? Could we really pass judgment on those who want to live permanently in a simulation, when we have no idea if we have chosen to do the same? Waking them up could be tantamount to destroying their lives. The audience of 2060 may react very differently to the ending of this movie.
What are your thoughts on the ethics of simulated reality? Do you think it would be more ethical (or practical) to let the dreamers dream, or to wake them up to "reality?"