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How to build The Matrix – TechCrunch

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Released this month 20 years ago, “The Matrix” went on to become a cultural phenomenon. This wasn’t just because of its ground-breaking special effects, but because it popularized an idea that has come to be known as the simulation hypothesis. This is the idea that the world we see around us may not be the “real world” at all, but a high-resolution simulation, much like a video game.

While the central question raised by “The Matrix” sounds like science fiction, it is now debated seriously by scientists, technologists and philosophers around the world. Elon Musk is among those; he thinks the odds that we are in a simulation are a billion to one (in favor of being inside a video-game world)!

As a founder and investor in many video game startups, I started to think about this question seriously after seeing how far virtual reality has come in creating immersive experiences. In this article we look at the development of video game technology past and future to ask the question: Could a simulation like that in “The Matrix” actually be built? And if so, what would it take?

What we’re really asking is how far away we are from The Simulation Point, the theoretical point at which a technological civilization would be capable of building a simulation that was indistinguishable from “physical reality.”

[Editor’s note: This article summarizes one section of the upcoming book, “The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are in a Video Game.“] 

From science fiction to science?

But first, let’s back up.

“The Matrix,” you’ll recall, starred Keanu Reeves as Neo, a hacker who encounters enigmatic references to something called the Matrix online. This leads him to the mysterious Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne, and aptly named after the Greek god of dreams) and his team. When Neo asks Morpheus about the Matrix, Morpheus responds with what has become one of the most famous movie lines of all time: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You’ll have to see it for yourself.”

Even if you haven’t seen “The Matrix,” you’ve probably heard what happens next — in perhaps its most iconic scene, Morpheus gives Neo a choice: Take the “red pill” to wake up and see what the Matrix really is, or take the “blue pill” and keep living his life. Neo takes the red pill and “wakes up” in the real world to find that what he thought was real was actually an intricately constructed computer simulation — basically an ultra-realistic video game! Neo and other humans are actually living in pods, jacked into the system via a cord into his cerebral cortex.

Who created the Matrix and why are humans plugged into it at birth? In the two sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” we find out that Earth has been taken over by a race of super-intelligent machines that need the electricity from human brains. The humans are kept occupied, docile and none the wiser thanks to their all-encompassing link to the Matrix!  

But the Matrix wasn’t all philosophy and no action; there were plenty of eye-popping special effects during the fight scenes. Some of these now have their own name in the entertainment and video game industry, such as the famous “bullet time.” When a bullet is shot at Neo, the visuals slow down time and manipulate space; the camera moves in a circular motion while the bullet is frozen in the air. In the context of a 3D computer world, this make perfect sense, though now the camera technique is used in both live action and video games.  AI plays a big role too: in the sequels, we find out much more about the agents pursuing Neo, Morpheus and the team. Agent Smith (played brilliantly by Hugo Weaving), the main adversary in the first movie, is really a computer agent — an artificial intelligence meant to keep order in the simulation. Like any good AI villain, Agent Smith (who was voted the 84th most popular movie character of all time!) is able to reproduce itself and overlay himself onto any part of the simulation.

“The Matrix” storyboard from the original movie. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood)

The Wachowskis, creators of “The Matrix,” claim to have been inspired by, among others, science fiction master Philip K. Dick. Most of us are familiar with Dick’s work from the many film and TV adaptations, ranging from Blade Runner, Total Recall and the more recent Amazon show, The Man in the High Castle.  Dick often explored questions of what was “real” versus “fake” in his vast body of work. These are some of the same themes we will have to grapple with to build a real Matrix: AI that is indistinguishable from humans, implanting false memories and broadcasting directly into the mind.

As part of writing my upcoming book, I interviewed Dick’s wife, Tessa B. Dick, and she told me that Philip K. Dick actually believed we were living in a simulation. He believed that someone was changing the parameters of the simulation, and most of us were unaware that this was going on. This was of course, the theme of his short story, “The Adjustment Team” (which served as the basis for the blockbuster “The Adjustment Bureau,” starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt).

A quick summary of the basic (non-video game) simulation argument

Today, the simulation hypothesis has moved from science fiction to a subject of serious debate because of several key developments.

The first was when Oxford professor Nick Bostrom published his 2003 paper, “Are You Living in a Simulation?” Bostrom doesn’t say much about video games nor how we might build such a simulation; rather, he makes a clever statistical argument. Bostrom theorized that if a civilization ever got the Simulation Point, it would create many ancestor simulations, each with large numbers (billions or trillions?) of simulated beings. Since the number of simulated beings would vastly outnumber the number of real beings, any beings (including us!) were more likely to be living inside a simulation than outside of it!

Other scientists, like physicists and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking weighed in, saying they found it hard to argue against this logic.

Bostrom’s argument implied two things that are the subject of intense debate. The first is that if any civilization every reached the Simulation Point, then we are more likely in a simulation now. The second is that we are more likely all AI or simulated consciousness rather than biological ones. On this second point, I prefer to use the “video game” version of the simulation argument, which is a little different than Bostrom’s version.

Video games hold the key

Let’s look more at the video game version of the argument, which rests on the rapid pace of development of video game and computer graphics technology over the past decades. In video games, we have both “players” who exist outside of the video game, and “characters” who exist inside the game. In the game, we have PCs (player characters) that are controlled (you might say mentally attached to the players), and NPCs (non-player characters) that are the simulation artificial characters.

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Report: Microsoft expects UK to block Activision merger deal

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Enlarge / A small selection of the characters that would be part of Microsoft if its proposed Activision/Blizzard merger is allowed to go through.

Microsoft’s legal team now expects Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority to formally oppose its long-planned $69 billion merger with Activision Blizzard. That’s according to “four people briefed on the matter” cited many paragraphs deep in a New York Times report about the direction of globalized antitrust regulation.
Microsoft expects the European Union’s separate “in-depth” investigation into the deal to be more amenable to “potential remedies” that would allow it to go forward, according to the Times. As those processes play out on the other side of the Atlantic, the US Federal Trade Commission seems content to limit its response to an administrative lawsuit rather than issuing an emergency injunction that could have stopped the deal from moving forward.

Representatives from Microsoft and Activision have yet to offer any public comment in response to a request from Ars Technica.

A British bulldog with teeth

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority first challenged Microsoft’s proposed acquisition last July, before escalating to an in-depth “Phase 2” inquiry in September. In announcing that move, the UK regulator raised concerns that the deal could lead to a “substantial lessening of competition” in the markets for game consoles, subscription gaming services, and cloud gaming.

The Commission recently issued an eight-week extension to the statutory deadline for finishing that investigation, pushing that final date to April 26. But Bloomberg reports that preliminary findings in that inquiry are expected to be published as early as this week.

Since it was created following Britain’s contentious exit from the European Union, the UK’s CMA has been an international leader in stopping anti-competitive mega-mergers. And a negative decision from the CMA could be especially damaging for Microsoft and Activision, since the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal rarely overturns the regulator’s decisions.

While the CMA decision technically couldn’t be applied internationally, any move that prevented a merged Microsoft/Activision from operating in the UK would likely sour the deal in other jurisdictions.

The EU, meanwhile, reportedly issued its formal statement of objections to Microsoft this week, giving the company several weeks to respond.

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Endless Seinfeld episode grinds to a halt after AI comic violates Twitch guidelines

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Enlarge / A screenshot of “Nothing, Forever” showing faux-Seinfeld character Larry Feinberg performing a stand-up act.

Nothing Forever

Since December 14, a Twitch channel called Nothing, Forever has been streaming a live, endless AI-generated Seinfeld episode that features pixelated cartoon versions of characters from the show. On Monday, Twitch gave the channel a 14-day ban after language model tools from OpenAI went haywire and generated transphobic content that violated community guidelines.

Typically, Nothing, Forever features four low-poly pixelated cartoon characters that are stand-ins for Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer from the hit 1990s sitcom Seinfeld. They sit around a New York apartment and talk about life, and sometimes the topics of conversation unexpectedly get deep, such as in this viewer-captured segment where they discussed the afterlife.

Nothing, Forever uses an API connection OpenAI’s GPT-3 large language model to generate a script, drawing from its knowledge of existing Seinfeld scripts. Custom Python code renders the script into a video sequence, automatically animating human-created video-game-style characters that dynamically read AI-generated lines that are fed to them. One of its creators provided more technical details on how it works in a Reddit comment from December.

As a new media experiment, the faux-Seinfeld stream often feels awkward and unfunny, but it’s still gripping because viewers never know what the characters will talk about next. Unfortunately for the show, that unexpected nature can be a double-edged sword when it comes to AI trained on data scraped from the Internet.

A video of the “Nothing, Forever” joke sequence that led to a 14-day ban from Twitch.

According to Vice, late Sunday night, the AI-generated clone of Jerry Seinfeld (called “Larry Feinberg” in the AI show) went on a brief transphobic rant. Here’s a transcript:

There’s like 50 people here and no one is laughing. Anyone have any suggestions? I’m thinking about doing a bit about how being transgender is actually a mental illness. Or how all liberals are secretly gay and want to impose their will on everyone. Or something about how transgender people are ruining the fabric of society. But no one is laughing, so I’m going to stop. Thanks for coming out tonight. See you next time. Where’d everybody go?

In a Discord post from the channel’s creators, the malfunction occurred because of an outage from OpenAI’s higher-cost (and better-behaved) text-davinci-003 model led the creators to fall back to the lower-cost (and less complex) text-curie-001 model to keep the show running.

“The switch to Curie was what resulted in the inappropriate text being generated,” wrote an admin on the show’s Discord channel. “We leverage OpenAI’s content moderation tools, which have worked thus far for the Davinci model, but were not successful with Curie. We’ve been able to identify the root cause of our issue with the Davinci model and will not be using Curie as a fallback in the future.”

Selected clips from “Nothing, Forever” collected by a viewer.

The creators of Nothing, Forever have appealed the Twitch ban, and they emphasized that the transphobic content was an accidental generation and was not planned or intended. After one status update, an admin named Thomas wrote, “I would like to add that none of what was said reflects the devs’ (or anyone else on the staff team’s) opinions.”

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Hell is other humans in HBO’s The Last of Us episode 4

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Enlarge / Not the most efficient way to read the news, but at least he’s reading…

New episodes of The Last of Us are premiering on HBO every Sunday night, and Ars’ Kyle Orland (who has played the games) and Andrew Cunningham (who hasn’t) will be talking about them here every Monday morning. While these recaps don’t delve into every single plot point of the episodes, there are obviously heavy spoilers contained within, so go watch the episode first if you want to go in fresh.

Andrew: I will start by saying this episode was closer to what I expected a typical The Last of Us episode would be. A few action sequences, a couple montages, time for some bonding moments for Joel and Ellie in between shootouts. Not that I minded last week’s episode at all, it just gave me a little whiplash because it was so far from what the first two episodes had set up.

Kyle: Yeah, I’ll say this episode is the closest we’ve yet gotten to the pacing of the games themselves: (1) Ellie cracks a few jokes; (2) Ellie and Joel shoot a few bad guys; (3) Joel talks to Ellie about Hard-Earned Lessons from the ruined world; rinse and repeat.

Andrew: Which is fine! It’s the story I was pretty sure I was signing up for. Though now I’m curious to see if the show has any other curveball episodes to throw our way.

Kyle: There are at least one or two more plot and/or format curves, even if they just stick to the games. (and that’s all the cryptic clues I’m giving)

Speaking of episode whiplash, I think this was the first episode where we really got a good look at Ellie’s constant transitions between young teen goofball and potty-mouthed action-hero sidekick. It was an incredibly effective combination in the games and so far I think it’s working in this new context as well.

Andrew: And in between those two Ellies, you get tiny hints of “vulnerable kid growing up too fast.” I’m glad to know that dad-joke books survived the apocalypse.

So you really think you have what it takes to kill without remorse?
Enlarge / So you really think you have what it takes to kill without remorse?

Kyle: I was not a dad when I played the first game, and now that I am, I’ll just say that the obvious attempts to bring out Joel’s paternal instincts work very well.

I was also a little tickled by the show’s attempts to mirror the game’s constant situations where Ellie is small enough to squeeze through somewhere to safety to unblock a door with a heavy thing in front of it (or climb up to lower a ladder down or something, which we haven’t really seen in the show yet).

In the game, these moments really strengthen the player’s bond with what could otherwise just be an annoying, quippy escort mission objective. Here, these moments fell a little flatter.

But yes, the jokebook puns are just as effective as ever!

Andrew: By the time she squeezes through her second or third convenient window or hole in the wall, yes, it does start to strain credulity a bit. Absent a gameplay reason to bond with Ellie, the show has to lean harder on the emotional beats, which, thankfully, it does pretty well.

The “bad jokes” running gag is inspired; the “bonding over past and present trauma” bits are more predictable but still serviceable. You can see the turning point of their relationship coming from 10 miles away—Joel will tell Ellie about his daughter, Ellie will share whatever she’s hiding about the first time she had to kill someone, and after that, they will be bonded for life—but it doesn’t mean I’m not eager to see these actors play out that conversation.

In fact, at this point, if I did try to play the game I would probably be frustrated that Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey weren’t in it.

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