“Simulated Worlds 2” (SB 2.9.4)
Thompson examines aspects of telerobotic simulation research in which our normal sense of reality tends to disappear. He argues that experiments such of these can offer useful references points for considering complex issues involving artificial intelligence research, as well as classic arguments pertaining to the Platonic world of ideal forms.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 2, Chapter 9, Text 4. “Simulated Worlds 2.” San Diego – February 21, 1990 / (015)
Srimad-Bhagavatam Canto 2, Chapter 9, text 4:
O King, the Personality of Godhead, being very much pleased with Lord Brahma because of his nondeceptive penance in bhakti-yoga, presented His eternal and transcendental form before Brahma. And that is the objective goal for purifying the conditioned soul.
Atma-tattva is both the science of God and the living entity. Both the Supreme Lord and the living entity are known as atma. The Supreme Lord is called Paramatma and the living entity is called the atma, the brahma, or the jiva. Both the Paramatma and the jivatma, being transcendental to the material energy, are called atma. So Sukadeva Goswami explains this verse with the aim of purifying the truth of both the Paramatma and the jivatma. Generally, people have many wrong conceptions about both of them. The wrong conception of the jivatma is to identify the material body with the pure soul, and the wrong conception of Paramatma is to think Him on an equal level with the living entity. But both misconceptions can be removed with one stroke of bhakti-yoga, just as in the sunlight both the sun and the world and everything within the sunlight are properly seen. In the darkness one cannot see the sun, nor himself, nor the world. But in the sunlight one can see the sun, himself and the world around him. Srila Sukadeva Goswami therefore says that for purification of both wrong conceptions, the Lord presented His eternal form before Brahmaji, being fully satisfied by Brahma's nondeceptive vow of discharging bhakti-yoga. Except for bhakti-yoga, any method for realization of atma-tattva, or the science of atma, will prove deceptive in the long run.
In the Bhagavad-gita the Lord says that only by bhakti-yoga can one know Him perfectly and then one can enter into the science of God. Brahmaji undertook great penance in performing bhakti-yoga, and thus he was able to see the transcendental form of the Lord. His transcendental form is 100% spiritual and one can see Him only by spiritualized vision after proper discharge of tapasya or penance, in pure bhakti-yoga. The form of the Lord manifested before Brahma is not one of the forms with which we have experience in the material world. Brahmaji did not perform such severe types of penance just to see a form of material production. Therefore the question of Maharaja Pariksit about the form of the Lord is answered. The form of the Lord is sat-cid-ananda or eternal, full of knowledge, and full of bliss. But the material form of the living being is neither eternal, nor full of knowledge, nor blissful. That is the distinction between the form of the Lord and that of the conditioned soul. The conditioned soul, however, can regain his form of eternal knowledge and bliss simply by seeing the Lord by means of bhakti-yoga.
The summary is that due to ignorance the conditioned soul is encaged in the temporary varieties of material forms. But the Supreme Lord has no such temporary form like the conditioned souls. He is always possessed of an eternal form of knowledge and bliss, and that is the difference between the Lord and the living entity. One can understand this difference by the process of bhakti-yoga. Brahma was then told by the Lord the gist of Srimad-Bhagavatam in four original verses. Thus Srimad-Bhagavatam is not a creation of the mental speculators. The sound of Srimad-Bhagavatam is transcendental, and the resonance of the Srimad-Bhagavatam is as good as that of the Vedas. Thus the topic of the Srimad-Bhagavatam is the science of both the Lord and the living entity. Regular reading or hearing of Srimad-Bhagavatam is also performance of bhakti-yoga and one can attain the highest perfection simply by the association of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Both Sukadeva Goswami and Maharaja Pariksit attained perfection through the medium of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
So Srila Prabhupada points out here two misconceptions concerning Paramatma and the jivatma, and I recently had occasion to see a rather thorough-going exhibition of both misconceptions. So the first misconception is to identify the jivatma with the material body. So what can I say about that? The second misconception, curiously enough, is to identify the Paramatma with the jivatma. So indeed we saw both at this conference, which was just held in San Francisco during the last few days. Of course the standard theme of what everyone said, practically speaking, was that the conscious self was to be identified with the material body, specifically with some aspect of the functioning of the brain. This was harped on endlessly, but occasionally a glimmer of transcendental light would break through the roiling clouds of mind-body identification; and we would briefly see mentioned the idea that actually the conscious self is equivalent to the universal self. In fact there's only one mind. So either the mind was identified with the brain or we were told that there was one mind. One or the other. So it does seem that these mistakes were being made.
So Srila Prabhupada points out here that you really require bhakti-yoga in order to properly understand the nature of the conscious self and also the Supreme Conscious Self in relation to matter. So this is presented in the Srimad-Bhagavatam in great detail going back to Sukadeva Goswami and Vyasadeva. So the problem is how to relate that to the people of modern scientific mentality who have no faith in old scriptures and who are placing their faith in... partially in empirical studies and partially in wild speculation. As far as I could see at this conference, there's not that much interest in empirical study. Mostly what we saw was untrammelled speculation, just going on and on. So I won't give you a blow-by-blow account, but if you'd like I can recommend to you the series of tapes of these lectures. It will provide you with two solid days of listening pleasure and you can dive deeply into the ocean of these highly scientific deliberations and see what you think.
In any case, I gave one presentation there, but I was thinking of another one that would be interesting to give also. So I'll just present that here for the moment, just for the fun of it. And this is based on not so much even on the “Conference on Consciousness” that I just went to, but on another conference that Drutakarma and I went to a few days before that in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That was the “Artificial Life Conference.” So in that conference everyone was concerned with showing that life was just a material system, and in fact, you could build life forms yourself using computer technology. Those people were very fond of computers. At this conference we didn't have any real aficionados of the computer realm, although we met this guy, Osborne, of the Osborne Computer Company, and he's a very interesting fellow. He's a totally self-confident entrepreneurial type of person. So he came up, and in a deep, booming voice and said that, “In ten years it will all be over because at that time I will have super intelligent computer that can do anything a human being can do.” And he just declared this. And he had perfect confidence. I asked him how he knew. Well, he just knows.
But anyway, at this “Artificial Life Conference” practically everyone was like that, except they were only saying a hundred years, whereas, this guy said ten years. So there's this idea that you can build some kind of material structure which undergoes some sequence of transformations based on the laws of physics, and that will be conscious. So people have this idea. And some people even think that you can build a computer and the computer will be conscious. Others think that only brains can do it, for some reason. They think that somehow you need cytoplasm and mitochondria and things like that in order to have consciousness, even though amoebas and parameciums also have cytoplasm and mitochondria.
In any case, what I had come up with was a little story to illustrate the idea that you're not your body, within the domain of computer science ideas. So here's how this goes: This is a thought experiment, but, unlike some thought experiments, this is actually one that you can perform. You could do it today if you had a few million dollars. In fact, I'm going to recommend some of these people to do this, not that they probably will. But the first ingredient in this story is that you need a telerobot system. I've mentioned this before a couple of times, but it's a very fairly simple kind of apparatus that you could build.
What you have is, on the one hand, a kind of special helmet that fits over a person's head so that his eyes are looking into TV screens that fit over each eye and there are, you know, headphones piping sound into his ears, and so forth. And then he is also wearing a kind of harness so that... with sensors that pick up tension in the muscles of his arms and so forth. This is hooked up with some electronics which codes all the information coming from the sensors and which also sends electronic signals to these various devices, such as the TV cameras. And this is linked by radio, let's say, with a robot. Now the robot has TV camera eyes which correspond to the TV screen in this helmet the guy's wearing; and it has microphones which hook up to the earphones or loudspeakers in the helmet. And also it has servomechanisms which move its arms and so forth in accordance with the signals obtained from this harness that the person is wearing.
So the effect of all this is that when the person is hooked up in this telerobot system, he actually has the feeling that he is in the robot. Now this has been done in Japan, so I've read, and the illusion that is created by this device is fairly effective, even though what they have today, what they can build today is a fairly crude kind of device. Because, for example, when you look through the TV cameras of this machine, you're looking out… I mean to the TV screens, you're looking out through the TV cameras of the telerobot. And when you turn your head the robot head turns at the same time and so you scan across the image of the place that the robot, the area that the robot is looking at. So you actually have the illusion that you're the robot and that you're seeing from the perspective of the robot, even though, for example, the human eyes obviously have the power to move in their sockets, whereas I don't think they have that on the cameras on this robot. So you can see that even a fairly crude device like that will create the illusion that, well, "I'm this robot." In fact, one person reported having an out-of-body experience using this device because he was looking around from the perspective of the robot, and he looked over and saw his body sitting there with the helmet on his head. It was a very shocking experience to look over and see his own body. So this is the telerobot. So that's ingredient number one for this little story.
The second ingredient is the idea of a simulated world – and people are working on this. At this “Artificial Life Conference” we saw some reports of the kind of thing that they're doing. But what you do in a simulated world is the following thing: You have a very powerful computer and, using computer graphics technology and so on, you create a 3-dimensional model of a world with different entities in it. For example, in the case we saw, it was a model of the ocean floor, let's say a few hundred yards off the shore here at Pacific beach, where you have this kelp growing up and you have different crabs scuttling around and fish swimming through and so forth. So there are powerful computers that can actually generate a very vivid presentation of such a world in real time. We saw some video tape showing this kind of thing.
And actually today they have flight simulator computers in which, in real time, you can actually fly an airplane through simulated circumstances in which there are other airplanes there moving and you may see an aircraft carrier down below and you have to try to land on it and so forth. But it's all done by simulation, and the imagery is quite realistic. So what you do is, instead of having a physical telerobot hooked up to this helmet and other devices, you hook up the person to a simulated robot in the simulated world. For example, in that little video I made, you probably may recall that there was a robot there which was done with computer graphics, based on a 3-D model. So you can do that and with a very powerful computer you can do it in real time. So what would happen there is that the person hooked up within the helmet would find himself in the simulated world. He would be walking around within the simulated world and seeing from the point of view of the robot within that world. And, as he moved and turned his head, his viewpoint would rotate within the simulated world and so forth. So he'd be there in the simulated world. And if you can do that with one person, well, you can do it with two people, or N people, some number. So let us imagine that two people meet within the simulated world. So they're walking along. It's sort of like being in the middle of Tron, the Tron world. So you're walking along in your robot body in the simulated world. And you can do interesting psychological experiments, by the way. One can recommend this as a real subject of scientific investigation.
For example, a long time ago someone did an experiment in which a person wore a special kind of glasses, which turned the image of what he was seeing upside down. So initially this was very bewildering because the person would reach for something and his arm would go in exactly the opposite direction necessary to actually reach the thing. But gradually the person adjusted and finally he had the experience that everything was normal. Even though the glasses were still there he saw things as being right side up. No problem. And he could even toss a ball and catch it and pour water into a glass and so forth without difficulty. But then when he took the glasses off, suddenly everything was upside down and he had to adjust all over again to normal vision. So that shows something about the nature of the link between our conscious self and the world. There's something arbitrary and adjustable about that link.
So what I would propose is that if you put the person into the simulated world through this arrangement that I just described, very quickly he would adjust to that world. Let's say, you can imagine that his robot body in the simulated world would be somewhat different from a human body. Surely it would be. Let's say instead of legs it might have a unicycle wheel for moving around or something like that. But the person could become accustomed to it, so much so that he would think that was quite natural, if you could leave him in that simulated world for a long enough time. And then probably when you took off the helmet and so forth and he came back to this world he might feel extremely disoriented.
So we can now imagine two thoroughly acclimated persons meeting within the simulated world. So they're walking along a simulated path, looking at the simulated trees and so forth and they begin to get into a philosophical discussion. They begin asking one another, "Well, what is the real nature of the self? What am I anyway?" The one person would give a materialistic explanation. He would say, "Well, what you are is what you see right there. You're that body. Actually there are two basic principles that every intelligent person must accept. One is that everything is made up of this material stuff that we see in this world here." And with that he would stamp his simulated leg on the simulated ground, producing a simulated sound and he would say, "Yeah, everything's made of this simulated stuff and we know how it works. It works according to laws.” You could pick up one of the simulated rocks and drop it and, sure enough, it would accelerate down with, you know, according to the formula ½at2 and hit with a simulated thug. So he would say, "Yeah, this is the real world and we are these bodies. Every bit of scientific evidence that we have shows that this is true."
And the other person would reply, "Well, no, I don't think that's right. I'm not this body. Actually my real self is somewhere else. I have an actual body which is sitting in a room somewhere in another place and I'm merely linked up with this body. So this isn't my real self." So the first one would reply, "What nonsense! Can you show me any evidence of this? Show me this other body that you say is your real body. I would like to see it." And then the person would say, "Well, I can't show it to you because it's in another world. Actually this world is not real. This is just a simulated world. So I can't show you the other body." And then the first person would say, "Well, this is ridiculous! Of course this is the real world. What is this other world you're talking about? What is it made of and where is it?" And the person would have to say, "Well, this other world that I'm talking about is the real world. It has actual reality. Whereas, here we think these forms are real that we're seeing here and so forth, but actually they're not real. This is the world of illusion." And so the upshot of the conversation that would be that the materialist there would not be convinced. And, in fact, the other person who had this strange idea that his real body was somewhere else would be unable to convince this other person that that was true, because within the simulated world all he could point to would be things that are part of the simulation. There'd be literally nothing he could do to get out of that world and point to anything else.
So this is a little story to illustrate the actual situation that we're in because, in fact, we are in a simulated world, in once sense. You can then continue the metaphorical story a little bit further. You could say that, according to the Srimad-Bhagavatam… first of all, it's interesting, to make the simulated world you need a powerful computer and, at this “Artificial Life Conference,” we heard about some ways of making the computers of the future. And this guy, Toffoli, from MIT, was talking about what he called ‘programmable matter.’ The idea is, in present-day computers of course they've miniaturized things enormously. Computers used to be made of great big vacuum tubes and so on. Whereas, now you need a microscope really to see the circuitry on these little chips. But he was talking about an even greater degree of miniaturization in which you have what he called ‘programmable matter,’ and it's organized practically on a molecular or atomic level into many little cellular automata that are all linked together. And so on this programmable matter you can run all kinds of simulations using simulated laws of physics and you get a new computational physics emerging. So he was going on about that. So one could say that, as far as the Srimad-Bhagavatam is concerned, there is a kind of programmable matter and that's called pradhana. If you read the discussion of the sankhya philosophy, say in the Third Canto, what you find is that the pradhana has built into it all kinds of features which are suitable for creating a simulated world. Inherent within pradhana there's the principle of false ego and the three modes of material nature and the different senses, also the different material elements, the tan-mantras, of course the active senses and the senses of perception and so forth.
So all these different elements are inherent within pradhana, but in the pradhana stage they're not activated. They're not doing anything. And then when Maha-Visnu glances over the pradhana you could say, in a sense, He programs this programmable matter, in a sense, and sets the simulation into motion by introducing the element of time into the physical picture. And in fact, you could say that the karma of the living beings who are injected into the material universe or material universes corresponds to the programming. So, in any case, by adjusting the behavior or activity of this pradhana, Maha-Visnu creates universes in which there's organized structure. And these are basically simulated worlds, and they are worlds of illusion because in these worlds there are different forms, and through the sensory apparatus the conditioned souls are linked up with these forms. So that's just like the body of the individual being linked up to the simulated bodies in the simulated world through the apparatus of this helmet and electronics and so forth. So you can draw an analogy to that.
And of course, another interesting feature is that the material world is called the world of names. Well, in this simulated world, which is being run on a computer, everything is being done by symbol processing. There's no real substance there anywhere. It's all a matter of manipulating symbols within the computer. So you can draw this in comparison to the world of names because in this world all you’ve really got, apart from the pradhana itself, is systems of names and so forth. That is described. So you can draw an analogy there. And of course this world is the world of maya, or illusion, but the important thing about maya is that when you say that something's maya, you don't mean that there's nothing there. What you mean is that there is something there, which creates an illusion of something which actually isn't there.
There's so many comparisons of mistaking a stick for a snake or a rope for a snake, or being out in a desert and seeing what seems to be a lake shimmering in the distance. But actually there's no lake there, there's just a layer of hot air refracting the light from the sky and giving the impression of a lake. So the actual situation is that you have a simulated world and we have our real existence on a transcendental level. The spirit soul actually belongs to a different world and that's the real world, which is the spiritual reality. And through this apparatus we are linked up with these illusory bodies and so forth. So one can illustrate these ideas using this concept of the simulated world.
These computer people like to talk about this kind of thing. The thing that gave me the idea for it was in the discussions of this “Artificial Life Conference” the issue was raised as to whether a computer simulation could actually exhibit consciousness. And one person was arguing, "Well, if you make a simulation of a bridge, using different formulae and calculations, that's not a real bridge. You can calculate stresses and strains on the bridge and you can calculate at what point a loading of the bridge is going to collapse and so forth, but it's not a real bridge." So this guy, Tommaso Toffoli, said that, “Well, if you made a simulated bridge with simulated creatures and simulated cars driving across it, and then it collapsed then, within the simulation, the simulated creatures would go plummeting down and smash into things in a simulated way. So that would be just as real as the world we're in.” That was his argument.
Well, he was partially right. The thing he missed though was that, if all you had was the simulation, then there would be no consciousness of what was going on. There would be merely calculations generating some numbers – in other words, manipulation of symbols – and there would be no awareness. But the only ingredient you'd have to add there was to say that you had a simulated bridge, with simulated cars and simulated creatures, but you also had the link up so that actual conscious beings were linked up through sensory connections with those simulated creatures. Then they would actually identify with them and feel that they were those creatures and then when the bridge collapsed they would experience falling down and smashing into things and so forth. So he left out that essential ingredient. But that's the ingredient you can't see from within the simulation because, as you can see from the example, in the simulation there's no way you can see the actual apparatus of the simulation.
So that's the situation that we're in. So how do you get out of that? Well, you can see what's required to get out of the simulated world. If you were really in it there'd be nothing you could do to get out. You could only get out of the simulated world if somebody actually unstrapped you from the apparatus, took off the helmet, and then suddenly there you were, out of the simulation. And that would be very disconcerting for you if you were really wrapped up in that simulation. So you can imagine a way of sort of decompressing people from the simulation. What you do is you have what we call a simulated avatara. What you'd need to have would be have somebody meet you in the simulated world in a simulated body, but he knows what the real story is. So he'd very carefully explain to you within the simulation that it is just a simulation and explain how it is working. And if you properly related to this individual, asking humble questions and rendering service and so forth, then eventually you'd become qualified and he'd say, "Ok, are you ready? Now we're going to take you out of this simulation." And then take off the guy's helmet and then suddenly, "Wait a minute, this isn't the simulation any more. This is the real world." So that's the only way you could really get a person out of the simulation, assuming he'd been in there for a very long period of time, say a few billion, billion, billion years or something like that. So that's a little story.
By the way, I should point out that this isn't a new story. It's been told before. Plato told this story using his own way of putting it, where he told about the cave and the different beings in the cave who were just seeing shadows projected on the wall. It's actually the same idea. He didn't have such good technology in those days – they weren't burdened with it. So he just had the idea of puppet-like figures projected onto the wall with a fire that was behind them, casting shadows. But, basically it was the same idea.