In week one of AI October we had a look at the looming problem of human redundancy. In week two we explored the nature of artificial intelligence, followed by the question of AI ‘human’ rights in week three. That was all very serious and intelligent and futuristic, but it was also very hypothetical – great big weird problems in a future far away enough that you and me probably won’t have to deal with them. That stuff is fun but also fairly meaningless, much like those really deep philosophical conversations teenagers have, that make adults roll their eyes so hard they risk going blind in the process.
So I’m going to shake things up a bit now with a wacky new theory with some kinda disturbing implications for how we all live right now. And brace yourselves people, because if this theory turns out to have any merit to it (something I’m still uncertain of at this point) then things are going to get mighty weird around here really, really fast.
Enough foreshadowing, let’s get down to business: Have you ever played The Sims?
For those who haven’t The Sims is about the simplest idea for a video game going; you play as a person who lives in a house, has a job, entertains family and friends, and generally does all the things a normal human being might do, albeit with a fairly wacky twist to them. Sure it is possible to become an astronaut or vampire, get abducted by aliens or get yourself turned into a centaur, but look past all the crazy antics and the gameplay itself never varies much from the same routine us real people have: work, sleep, shop, recreate, repeat until death.
Whole research papers could be written on why someone would play, let alone enjoy, what essentially boils down to a simulation of the real life they player ironically squanders while playing, but that’s a topic for the psychiatrists, not me. No, what interests me about The Sims and other ‘god games’ like it, is what inevitably happens when the player gets bored.
If you’ve ever played one of these ‘god games’, you know that the broad goal of the experience is to basically be a benevolent dictator over whatever virtual community it is you’ve been given control over. You build them house, you provide them with services, you protect them from threats and thus the happy little group goes on to work towards whatever goal the game has set for you. They are your followers existing purely to serve your ends, and who rely totally on your help for survival – hence the title ‘god game’. And so in turn we serve our little community of followers, doing our best to keep them happy, safe and thriving despite every challenge the game can throw at us… right up until we get bored.
Once the player of any game gets bored it is virtually certain that they will start to look for ways to break the game. If the goal of the game is to kill a lot of enemies, the player will see if they can complete the game without killing anyone. If the goal is to sneak past without being spotted, they will try to kill everything on the map. If the goal is to be a hero they’ll try out being a villain and if the goal is to be the villain, they’ll try to be hero. And if the goal of the game is to protect a community of followers that rely desperately on you for their wellbeing, the player will do their very best to think up the most twisted and horrific way of tormenting that community, right up until they wipe it off the face of the game in an exercise of overkill so total, it would make Hitler blush and Stalin take notes.
The Sims is no exception to this trend. In fact, despite being the mundane ‘reality simulator’ that it is, it might actually provide us with some of the most horrifying examples of these Bored Player Holocausts. Consider this guy who programmed his Sim to be a compulsive neat freak, locked him in a room full of filth until he went mad and died… 10 times in a row. Or this person who created a dozen art slaves; Sims locked into tiny rooms producing art who only ever got fed if their stuff was sellable, all in the basement of another normal Sim who lived off the profit and had no idea any of this was happening. Or how about the classic ‘endless maze’ story where a Sim was forced to run a 7 hour maze to go to work every day, then walk 14 hours back home each night, leaving it 1 hour worth of rest every day?
This might sound like I’m gearing up for a repeat of the ‘Is violence in videogames bad?’ article I wrote a while back, but this is not the case. Nope, this is AI October and the angle I’m taking this time is a hell of a lot weirder.
Remember last week how we discussed whether an artificial intelligence could ever have Rights? Whether an entity that is by definition not human should be considered equal to a human being in any way? It’s a confusing question until you realize it’s the wrong question to ask; it doesn’t matter whether a creature is human or not, or even intelligent or not – all that matters is whether it can be said to have Interests, and whether those interests are worthy of protection. A dog is far less intelligent than most humans, and does not have the more complex interests of intellectual and political freedom that a human does. However the dog still has a very legitimate interest in avoiding pain for example, which should be and is respected by us through animal cruelty laws. Similarly an artificial intelligence does not have many of the interests a human does, but the interests it does have are still legitimate and should be defended.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Let me break it down for you: if a creature has an interest that is reasonably important then that interest should be protected, regardless of how intelligent that creature is, or even what it is. The Sims is a game where players manage a community of characters, each of which has needs and desires they are programmed to pursue, and dislikes and fears which they are programmed to avoid. As such it is quite clear that each Sim has interests, and furthermore that these interests are pretty serious for each character since they are literally and without exception compelled by their programming to do so – no different than how humans are absolutely compelled by their nature to drink water on a regular basis.
Follow this chain of logic and we end up at a very disturbing conclusion. Remember that time we got bored, locked a Sim in a room without a door and then set that room on fire?
Hilarious, I admit.
Yeah, that was the equivalent of drowning a kitten right there; taking a creature with a deeply programmed fear of something and then forcing that creature to be immersed in the thing it’s programmed to fear until it dies. Also, a shitload of pain in for good measure. God damn.
This is the point where everyone and their hopefully-not-drowned cat points out that video game characters aren’t real. They’re just simulations of creatures constructed with ones and zeros, created by humans for our own amusement. They don’t have nerve endings or brains, they aren’t autonomous beings that seek their own improvement, and they’re totally dependent on human technology to exist. Even if we accept that the programming of game characters gives them interests, we can literally switch their reality off and on again at our whim, and can even totally alter their very nature if we stuff about in their coding – their ‘interests’ are arbitrary qualities we can change at any time. Suggesting that mere subroutines of a computer program have feelings that we should respect is like saying the lawnmower is getting upset because it’s not getting used enough.
Well I’d suggest you and your cats think twice about that mate. Sure, even I admit it sounds totally absurd to suggest that simplistic creations like The Sims should be given respect, as if they were living intelligent creatures. But here’s the thing; there might just be another group of similarly simplistic creations, totally dependent on the whims of their creator that we DEFINITELY want respected.
Yep, that’s right, it turns out that there are some pretty compelling reasons to believe you, me, humanity as a whole, and everything else in this universe is purely a simulation, and that everything you personally want, need and care about is just how you were programmed. This isn’t some stoner daydream either. This is a serious metaphysical proposition that some very sciency people take seriously enough to look for tell-tale signs that our reality may be a construction rather than the one and only universe in which everything exists.
Even if you don’t buy the idea of humanity being some alien’s lunch-break distraction, this theory works on a theological level as well. Remember that article on the nature of God I wrote a while back? Remember how I pointed out that any creator god must be separate from the universe (otherwise how could they create something they were in) and therefore is not subject to the laws and rules of that universe? Well guess what kiddies, we just described a programmer and their simulation – albeit on a considerably grander scale than what we’re used to.
Of course, as with all ontological theories there is absolutely no way of proving the simulation theory definitively, short of God/The Programmer popping in personally to explain it all to us. But the mere fact that this theory is plausible has some pretty grim implications for our own simulations. Oh so you thought it was fine to casually brutalize, torture and murder your creations simply because you created them, they rely on you and they’re very very simple? Well let’s hope that no great big, vastly superior intelligence is watching us right now and gets the same idea, hey? After all, the only thing worse than discovering our reality is part of someone’s computer game would be finding out that our player had gotten bored, and decided to have some fun before starting a new game…