Is the Universe a Computer? New Evidence Emerges.

March 22nd, 2012

I haven’t posted in a while, but this is blog-worthy material. I’ve recently become familiar with the thinking of University of Maryland physicist, James Gates Jr. Dr. Gates is working on a branch of physics called supersymmetry. In the process of his work he’s discovered the presence of what appear to resemble a form of computer code, called error correcting codes, embedded within, or resulting from, the equations of supersymmetry that describe fundamental particles.

You can read a non-technical description of what Dr. Gates has discovered in this article, which I highly recommend.

In the article, Gates asks, “How could we discover whether we live inside a Matrix? One answer might be ‘Try to detect the presence of codes in the laws that describe physics.'” And this is precisely what he has done. Specifically, within the equations of supersymmetry he has found, quite unexpectedly, what are called “doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block codes.” That’s a long-winded label for codes that are commonly used to remove errors in computer transmissions, for example to correct errors in a sequence of bits representing text that has been sent across a wire.

Gates explains, “This unsuspected connection suggests that these codes may be ubiquitous in nature, and could even be embedded in the essence of reality. If this is the case, we might have something in common with the Matrix science-fiction films, which depict a world where everything human being’s experience is the product of a virtual-reality-generating computer network.”

Why are these codes hidden in the laws of fundamental particles? “Could it be that codes, in some deep and fundamental way, control the structure of our reality?,” he asks. It’s a good question.

If you want to explore further, here is a Youtube video by someone who is interested in popularizing Dr. Gates’ work, containing an audio interview that is worth hearing. Here, you can hear Gates describe the potential significance of his discovery in layman’s terms. The video then goes on to explain how all of this might be further evidence for Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis (in which it is suggested that the universe is a computer simulation). (NOTE: The video is a bit annoying – in particular the melodramatic soundtrack, but it’s still worth watching in order to get a quick high level overview of what this is all about, and some of the wild implications).

Now why does this discovery matter? Well it is more than strange and intriguing that fundamental physics equations that describe the universe would contain these error correcting codes. Could it mean that the universe itself is built with error correcting codes in it, codes that that are just like those used in computers and computer networks? Did they emerge naturally, or are they artifacts of some kind of intelligent design? Or do they indicate the universe literally IS a computer? For example maybe the universe is a cellular automata machine, or perhaps a loop quantum gravity computer.

Digital Physics – A New Kind of Science

The view that the universe is some kind of computer is called digital physics – it’s a relatively new niche field within physics that may be destined for major importance in the future. But these are still early days.

I’ve been fascinated by the possibility that the universe is a computer since college, when I first found out about the work of Ed Fredkin on his theory that the universe is a cellular automaton — for, example, like John Conway’s Game of Life algorithm (particularly this article, excerpted from the book Three Scientists and their Gods).

Following this interest, I ended up interning in a supercomputing lab that was working on testing these possibilites, at MIT, with the authors of this book on “Cellular Automata Machines.”

Later I had the opportunity to become friends with Stephen Wolfram, whose magnum opus, “A New Kind of Science” is the ultimate, and also heaviest, book on this topic.

I asked Stephen about what he thinks about this idea and he said it is, “a bit like saying ‘there’s a Fibonacci sequence there; this must be a phenomenon based on rabbits’.  Error-correcting codes have a certain mathematical structure, associated e.g. with sphere packing.  You don’t have to use them to correct errors. But it’s definitely an amusing thought that one could detect the Matrix by looking for robustification features of code.  Of course, today’s technology/code rarely has these … because our computers are already incredibly reliable (and probably getting more so)”

The work of Dr. Gates, is at the very least, an interesting new development for this field. At best it might turn out to be a very important clue about the nature of the universe, although it’s very early and purely theoretical at this point. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

However, I personally don’t believe the universe will turn out to be a computer or a computation. Read the next article in this series to find out why I think Consciousness is Not a Computation.

 Notes:

  • Seth Lloyd, professor quantum mechanical engineering at MIT, has written a book that describes his theory that the universe is a quantum computer.
  • Here’s a good article that explores various views related to the idea the universe is a computation in some more detail.