"Are you living in a computer simulation?" is the title of a paper by philosopher Nick Bostrom that looks at the possible outcomes of the human species ever increasing level of mechanical processing power and it's aparent desire to replicate and codify consciousness. This is based on the assumption that what we perceive to be our consciousness could be written into a large but finite set of interaction rules.
In section 3 of the paper Mr. Bostrom examines the theorhetical levels of technology it would take to create a seamless simulation of existence. He presents the data of operations per second that have been calculated to acurately represent the human brain to be upwards of 10^17 operations per second. He futher shows how this computational power is not outside the range of feasibility by citing other work that has been done in examining computational potential. This figure is based on the assumption that one need only look at a level of detail involving the network of synapses and no further granularity is needed for replicating a consciousness. If there is a finite set of rules that can be used to explain our experience and interaction with the world then these figures are not unsurmountable given the expectations of future development. They do however give rise to a few thoughts of my own.
First I would like to talk about these conscious entities that would be simulated. If it is agreed that some type of consciousness could be created via software it would seem an argument could be made for the rights of these entities. Once a society recognized the codifiability of consciousness, should not the same rights be afforded our algorithmical brethren? Do not these conscious entities have the same right for existence we of the biologically programmed world afford each other? When Mr. Bostrom talks of operations per second needed to replicate the firing rate of synapses he is speaking in realtime amounts. In order to simulate a living brain that experiences time at the same rate that we do. Given the same conscious machine code with a slower processor would yeild the same output, but on a delay. Those 10^17 operations could be run throgh the computer I am composing this document on in a just a short 30 million seconds, or a little less than a year. So removing the memory size constraints for a moment, a simulated consciousness running on my (ahem) current day technology could experience a second of life for every year I left it running. Would a consciousness that took a decade to analyze and respond to a simple question be considered something worthy of rights?
Unless the entity in my computer were to periodically check the internal computer clock, it would not be aware that it's chronological frame of reference were anything but normal. To it a second would last a second. There are many computers in the world much faster than my own. And the march of processor power technology seems to not be slowing. Though there have been some computed caps, we are ultimately not talking about whether or not the computational operations per second are possible. We could run a simulation today, just not realtime. The problem is in coding (or encoding) the state of a neural network and mapping it into meaninful psyschological interpretation.
Because a computer is a state machine, it's current state can be frozen by recording it's place in computation. The software can then be started again at any time right from the place it left off without any alteration to the output. Again this is provided the simulated being were not permitted to check real world clock. Which could easily be handled by not allowing the being to even consider that there is a "real world" othat than it's own. It could be put into a state of hibernation, but a hibernation that would have not impact and leave no traces of it's occurance. Unlike any kind of hibernation state that physical creatures may undergo, which leave behind many tell-tale signs of having occured.
If this bizarre state of existence seems almost alien and impossible to relate to, so may the problems of getting popular opinion swayed that it is as deserving of rights as the rest of us. And yet, if the whole experiment hasn't proven that consciousness is a set of finite rules that can exist regardless of the media running them (chemical/electronic), then how can our future selves claim special priviledges to allow their biological forms to trump the electronic. Surely this debate would take a long time to sort out. Perhaps finishing just before the abortion conference comes to a decision. I can't imagine that proof of our soullessness would do much to help that argument.