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Is This The Real Life

Columnist: Mike E. Duffy
January, 2019 Issue

Mike E. Duffy
All articles by columnist

I was at TEDxSonomaCounty a few weeks ago, and one of the afternoon’s presentations was a short play built on the notion that we are merely part of a computer simulation, much like Neo in The Matrix film series. The play posed the question, “What parameters might be changed to make our (simulated) world a better place to live?”

The we-are-all-living-in-a-simulation idea was first advanced by philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003. Bostrom’s argument is that if we have descendants who have super-powerful computers, and if they have an interest in simulating their ancestors, then the chance that we are merely simulated consciousnesses in a computer program is close to 100 percent. There are some assumptions in there, to be sure, but if you accept the arguments, that’s the result. (For more information, visit

Of course, it would be hard to prove we’re all just simulated consciousnesses interacting inside some future computer program, mostly because if we’re in a simulation, we can be fed information that appears to show that we aren’t. It’s a conundrum.

But it’s not a huge leap to believe we will someday simulate human consciousness, given sufficient computing power and understanding of the chemical/physical processes of the human brain. Hypothetically speaking, we could just run low-level simulations of those processes as observed in a functioning and conscious brain. Of course, those simulated processes would run much faster than their physical counterparts. It’s hard to predict what might happen should a super-fast human consciousness come into existence, but it would be interesting. Comparing the world of 2019 to the world of 1919, it’s not unreasonable to think we might be simulating human consciousness in 2119—and perhaps sooner than that.

Of course, that assumes we escape the threat of global warming, which according to latest reports is getting worse faster than expected, thus narrowing the window of time we have to address it. I honestly doubt we’re going to avoid truly major consequences in the next 25 to 50 years. And, as Americans, we won’t even bear the brunt of the changes wrought by more extreme weather. It’s likely that some parts of the world will become uninhabitable, where heat and humidity simply overpower the human body’s heat regulation mechanisms. It’s depressing as hell, and despite my solar-paneled house and hybrid vehicle, there’s little one person can do to make a change, besides voting for people who take the threat seriously.

Still with me? I apologize for that downer of a paragraph.

We can’t tell if we’re living in a simulation. Worse, it’s getting so we can’t even tell what is real. Those of you who watched Rogue One saw how Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the young Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) were recreated digitally using CGI techniques and a great deal of effort.

December 2017 brought us “DeepFakes,” a series of videos, which seamlessly substituted celebrity faces into pornographic videos. Using a series of “training” images and machine-learning algorithms, these videos demonstrated high-quality face swaps made without any video editing skills. The training images themselves can be taken from existing video footage, making it even simpler to do. The current limitation is that it requires a fair amount of computing power (in the form of high-end graphics cards, like those used for mining bitcoins) and tens of hours to produce even a short clip. But the software, which is available on the Internet for free, removes the need for video expertise. And techniques existing for recreating a person’s voice, speaking words they never said, given a sufficiently large sample of them speaking, you really can’t believe what you see or hear, even when it’s video.

An interview with Dr. Hany Farid ( points out that a high-quality fake video of, say, Donald Trump announcing he’s fired nuclear missiles at North Korea would most likely go viral in less than a minute, and possibly incite a response from North Korea, long before anyone could determine that the video was bogus. The White House was not above using a doctored video to support its retraction of reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass. And real but unflattering video of someone can be dismissed as a fake, even though it’s real. We live in confusing (and dangerous) times.

Of course, if we’re all just a simulation, it won’t matter if we blow ourselves to kingdom come or slowly roast ourselves as global temperatures increase. Someone will reboot the universe, perhaps with slightly different parameters, in hopes of avoiding another unhappy ending. For those of us inside the simulation, though, there’s a feeling of powerlessness, despite the amazing technology we command. In the end, it’s a human problem.

If you’re interested, the video of “Reimagine: A Play,” by Scott Lummer, is available at




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