Theoretical physicists have dispelled the idea we are living in a Matrix-style computer simulation, calculating that not all aspects of our reality can be simulated efficiently using computers.
The simulation theory has been a staple of science fiction for decades and was detailed in a 2003 paper by the philosopher Nick Bostrom. On the basis of this paper, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has stated there is a 99.99 percent chance that the universe we inhabit is a computer simulation, while physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that is is "very likely."
Researchers at the University of Oxford have now calculated that "even just to store the information about a few hundred electrons on a computer one would require a memory built from more atoms than there are in the universe."
Research published by physicists Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhin in Science Advances suggests that this notion of creating a massive-scale simulation using classical computers is "impossible."
This is due to something known as the quantum Hall effect, which causes the simulation to become exponentially more complex as the number of particles increases.
"If the growth is exponential, or in other words if for every extra particle one has to double the number of processors, memory, etc., then this task becomes intractable," the researchers state.
Bostrom's hypothesis is that an advanced "posthuman" civilization will use enormous amounts of computing power to run realistic simulations of the universe. He suggests that current technology trends suggest humanity is already on course for this to be possible.
"The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following," Musk said at a conference last year. "40 years ago we had Pong—two rectangles and a dot. That's where we were.
"Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year… If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable."
While achieving this on classical computers is impossible, the research does not entirely rule out that an effective method for massive-scale simulations might one day be possible through advances in ultra-powerful quantum computers, however the researchers note that currently no efficient simulation algorithms are known.
The reason that such algorithms have yet to be discovered, Ringel and Kovrizhin argue, is that they are currently outside the realm of what can currently be imagined within the laws of theoretical physics. For now, the simulation hypothesis will have to remain within the scope of science fiction.