Any true science fiction fan will immediately recognize the featured image to this post as The Matrix – the late 90s trilogy where humans are stuck living in a simulated reality, which is aptly named the Matrix. In the film we enter a world where all experiences humans have; the taste of food, the feeling of a gust of wind or the solidity of surfaces is nothing more than coding embedded in the Matrix. We are led to the conclusion that once an individual is consciously aware of the existence of the Matrix, it is possible to manipulate the programming to perform feats that defy the known laws of nature on Earth – which is fine when you are living within a computer. One of the main characters, Neo, gains such a deep understanding of the Matrix that he is able to see things for the coding they are, rather than the simulated reality.
There are individuals who firmly believe this is the reality – here is a buzzfeed is titled “12 Stories Of People Experiencing A Glitch In The Matrix That’ll Freak You Out”. Perhaps a more apt title would be “1 Story of Humans Taking A Film For Reality That’ll Depress You” – these people are mad and we are not here to make Wachowski’s fantastic imagination reality. Instead what I offer is a real and short introduction to information theory through which you can look at the universe through a very different lens. I offer no red pill, but you will be pleased to know the rabbit hole does go very deep.
If you have something you wish to tell me, you have information you wish to transfer. You may simply speak to me and tell me, but there are a huge number of other ways you could communicate with me. You could write to me, send me an email or perform a song. You may even design a code with which to transfer the information to me, which again is a set with a huge number of different permutations; ciphers, Morse, enigma and so on. These communication methods to the human are fundamentally different – if you are sat in a job interview you are unlikely to get very far if you answer with a cipher, and emailing your responses to the questions may somewhat loose the personal touch. A song could go either way – kudos if you have the neurological dexterity to react that quickly, but it may well be too quirky. Such is the difference in these methods of communicating information, that it is easy to overlook similarity – but it is vital that you see that the differences are all human societal norms. If the person we are communicating information to cares for nothing expect the information received then these methods are identical. In a universe born long before human existence, it is highly unlikely that human societal norms shape the texture of reality.
Now we are flirting with information theory.
We are all acutely aware that we can roughly grade how much information we have. For example, we would set aside more time to read a large novel compared to a very short one. When we buy our iPhone we are comfortable that the 64GB model should cost more than the 32GB model, and we generally appreciate that devices have limited storage. With all these capacities there must be a way to weigh information in the same way that we can weigh the individuals in a lift, to ensure the maximum capacity is not breached. This is the bit – which is the fundamental unit of information and is nothing more than the answer to a yes/no question. It is the summation of all these answers which provides the overall block which we are calling our information – the more individual bits, the heavier the information. Information should not be seen as matter nor energy – it is information and it is fantastic. Huge complex assemblages of yes no questions.
The historical birth of information theory comes from Claude Shannon’s 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, which really is foundation to the modern digital age. The core idea of information communication is something like: I take an input, use a coding table to make a code which I then send, and decode elsewhere. Information gets from one place to another via some coding. Now you might think “make a code” is very heavy handed – how do we make a code? What even is a code? The reason I am broad in my vocabulary is that the answer is truly very broad as we will show now.
Every time I hit a key on this keyboard, I create a code which can be sent via the internet and decoded into nice human letters. The following table is the coding language we use, which is well known – this is binary code, binary of course meaning “comprising of two things” – a 1 and a 0.
One of the concepts I used to struggle with when I thought about binary code is what the hell is a 1 or a 0 stored as!? You want to tell me that their code definition is nothing more than the individual items themselves – that’s way too circular, no sir. Well thankfully there are many different binary ways in which things can be stored – a common way being temporary north and south magnetic charges. Really you can do it with anything that is binary – so 101 is just as good as NSN; the same information is stored and it can be decoded identically. Crisis resolved.
Code runs deep inside you too, and not in some arty metaphorical sense we are talking literally – take a look at the next example of code and see if you have any idea what this sample comes from?
This is genetic coding, the coding that coils inside every single cell in your body, which contains all the information on how to build you – which is decoded by your clever little cells shaping every part of your physical existence and an appreciable portion of you personality. This is code taking information from A to B – fundamentally different in application, but breathtakingly similar in theoretical underpinning.
The interesting bit starts now. If we were communicating by speaking to each other from two sides of the room what volume would we speak at? The question is of course unanswerable, it totally depends on the amount of background noise in the room. If the room is very noisy we may have to speak loudly, repeat certain words or sentences and miss parts of what each other is saying. The exact same principle is true of sending any message down any channel – there is noise which can alter my information and change the message I was trying to send. Now the huge leap comes when applying the mathematics – the formula for noise in a system it turns out the exact same form as this one below:
10 points to anyone who got it – that’s the formula for the entropy in a system according to the laws of thermodynamics (see A Descent Into Chaos). To quote the most obnoxious man on the planet, “What the hell is going on?”.
Well it seems the link between entropy and noise is an intimate one – yet another example of how gases can help us model the world around us. Much in the same way that entropy is an increasing disorder in a system, which is irreversible, noise introduced into a communication channel is irreversible disorder. You may filter it or disguise it but you cannot delete it. Things can at first appear confusing since if we have noise in a system it may look like we have more information and not less, because the noise in itself is information. Well that is true however remember that we can never separate the noise from the original signal – once the original message is clouded by noise the specific information is gone. So 1 has less information that 010 – but if my message was 1, it is not disguised, it’s hidden by its fat friends on either side. So the information within a system is not simply there because we have more information, it’s preservation depends on the preservation of the structure of the original signal. Noise is always bad – we try to achieve no noise in a perfect system.
I suppose the final piece left to discuss in a brief introduction is the way in which things are coded. Coding happens in layers – which if you think about it is sort of obvious. Let us use this post as the overall information. Now this post is split into paragraphs, which is then split into words, which are split into letters, which are split into strings of 1’s and 0’s which are split into spots of magnetic charge carried by electrons. The code is created from the top level downwards (which it has to be) and then decoded from the bottom layer – I receive the code as the electrical information and use this to rebuild the 1’s and the 0’s which then rebuilds the structure of my post.
You hear that a file has been corrupted on your computer now and then, but what does this actually mean? Well it generally means that there is an error in one of the layers of coding which has been altered that means the other layers cannot flow through – if you try to edit a WordPress post in HTML view, you are deeper than you are if you are in visual view. Whilst you are not that much deeper, there are some key differences – pictures, bold text and hyperlinks are not the same any more:
You have to write in the language of the layer you are editing in – try to mess around with any layer in the wrong language and you will screw the whole thing up. You encode top down, you decode bottom up. If anything goes wrong in a layer, you have corruption.
What does this all mean?
I started with The Matrix, and promised the rabbit hole went deep – and since you have come this far I will not disappoint. Computing has come a long way since we were jumping for joy because we could send a fax – we are now at a point where we can create virtual reality. Virtual reality is a highly immersive experience, where the person may at times be tricked into thinking they are really there – horror is much scarier in virtual reality so there is a degree of extra “realness”. Given the fact that we have only been messing around with computers for decades, it is not unrealistic to think that in centuries we may be able to use computers to simulate a reality that the user, unless they specifically remember being inserted, can not distinguish from the previous “reality” they came from. To that human the simulated reality now becomes their own reality – a world which is build entirely from information.
These ideas are of course extrapolations of current trends – predictions not fact, however they do take the ideas from The Matrix and make them look far less whimsical. Of course, when you go out hunting for the real base reality, you need to purge yourself of bias from science fiction and stay withing the realms of science – it’s stranger than fiction anyway. This is why I find it depressing people are looking for The Matrix, when there is a far bigger playground out there.
There is no real need to run off and try and look for direct evidence we are in a simulation – whatever we are in, simulation or reality the game has rules, which you need to understand before you can use them to your advantage. This fact does not change, if the laws are the inherent laws of nature or the simulated rules of a computer – I truly believe that in full mastery of these rules the nature of reality is revealed in one way or another. We must keep an open mind the flip side; if true mastery of these rules will not reveal the nature of reality then the human race will never know. This is a depressing thought, so we live in hope and enjoy the thrill of the chase; we either get a prize or have a very fun time playing.
These ideas are seriously wacky – the one thing that stands in the way of intelligently debating them in the mainstream is humans and the inherent embarrassment we feel these zany ideas. Ironically, this could be evidence for simulation! An inbuilt control where the inhabitants of the game feel uncomfortable with ideas that might unveil the puppet master. Let’s get real – I am not saying we are not in base reality right now, I am just saying it seems unlikely. I believe the most important and inspiring message a human being can be given is;
No theory, known to any being we can communicate with is currently adequate to explain the universe in marooned in isolation.
It’s very easy as we sit there with iPad’s and the internet, living in heated homes, going into space and masterfully manipulating the rules of quantum mechanics to feel like champions. Whilst it is of great use to take stock, and congratulate accomplishment we must never lose sight of the fact that there is more. We are currently trying to express the laws which our universe obeys, which we cannot do with anything we currently have. Einsten, Feynman, Witten – the list goes on, great brilliant minds who accelerated the human race forwards centuries yet the final prize eludes us (if there is indeed any meaning in such a phrase). I feel a great sense of adventure and freedom when we consider the fact that the “obvious” has already been explored, along with a good portion of the absurd and no solution has been revealed. The answer is out there, and it’s lurking in the weird and wonderful.
Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.