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Inaction in computation

Dan Roberts


It was all a mistake. I just wanted to know what she would say if I asked her out. Without having to ask her.

I’m really shy, and I don’t have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. In fact, I’ve never done it before. So I have no way of predicting what she (or anyone, for that matter) would say.

See, my plan was to try to know what she would say, but before she says it. This isn’t totally crazy; we (humans) do it all the time. Just usually in our head. For example:

Me: Mom, can I borrow $100 to rent a pocket-fMRI?

Mom (simulated, in my head): Didn’t I just give you money for that? Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. And what’s a kid your age keep needing to use an MRI-anything for? They’re not toys!

So I realized that I needed a different approach:

Me: Mom, I need $100 for Mrs. Keuling’s class trip.

Mom: Hmm …. Didn’t I just give you money for that? And that’s quite expensive! Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know … can I see a permission slip explaining the project?

Me: Absolutely, I’ve got it right here. It’s for a trip to the neuro-labs to learn about equipment safety and the fact that such things are dangerous and not to be used as toys.

Mom: Well, okay …

See, I simulated the second conversation in my head too and knew that I needed to make a fake permission slip. But Moms are easy, everyone knows what they’re thinking! Girls are difficult, nobody knows what they’re thinking …

Hence, the idea …

… make a better simulation! One that could never be wrong. One that would tell me exactly what she was thinking. Well, she could tell me, because I could just ask her!

But if it could never be wrong, it would have to be perfect. Hence, the Knightian-freedom-violating pocket-fMRI. And the expensive cloud-computing bill:

Me: Mom, I need to make a large purchase of cycles on the TensorNetwork cloud …

Eh, that part’s boring; I’m sure you can easily simulate the rest of the conversation.


Anyway, as I was saying, I needed the pocket-fMRI and all the computing cycles my Mom could buy. Because even if you scan someone, what are you going to do with the data? Just stare at it? I can’t read minds!

I needed to run it. And to run it, I needed her to be unaware that it was a simulation. Why would a Boltzmann brain want to date me? I’ve got a feeling it’s not that into a long-term relationship …

So I also needed a Replicator (“Mom, can I please had an advance on my allowance?”) and an AnyonTagger (“Mom, I want to buy Dad a birthday present …”). So now I also had a copy of the school, the class, the teacher, and the weather for the next day. (I was going to ask her out at recess tomorrow.)

But what if she tried to use her phone? Or the Internet? So I also got a Quantum-Proposal-Tester™ (“Hi, I’d like to apply for this job. You know, teen stuff. Yeah, having a girlfriend’s not cheap …”). So now—in addition to her—I had a copy of the Internet, the school, the class, the teacher, the weather for the next day, and the weather for arbitrarily into the future. You see, I copied everything on Earth.

I also made sure to perfectly copy myself. Because trying to control my avatar from the outside the simulation would be far too clunky. What if she realized something was off because I was different? What if she realized she was in a simulation and I was running it, wouldn’t that change her answer? The old adage is true: the only way to control a sentient mind is to actually be that particular sentient mind.


It suddenly occurred to me that I had no way of knowing where I was anymore. Oh, I know where I am; I’m in my kitchen about to ask my Mom for a loan. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is, am I made up of neurons or am I made up of neurons being (perfectly) simulated on the cloud?

(I try to introspect on this, but the only thing that I get back is people during my life constantly telling me to “get my head out of the clouds.” Is that a planted memory? Is that even a real expression people say? Or is someone trying to tell me something about the metaphysics of my universe?)

I always used to wonder whether the universe is real or a simulation. Now I realize that’s a silly question. I was probably always living in the simulation of someone else who wanted to predict the answer to a question with certainty. Like what if Mom wanted to know what Dad would say if she asked him to marry her …?

(Somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder if my Mom’s credit card that I used to pay for the TensorNetwork connection is going to run out soon. But worrying about that sort of existential risk is a lot like worrying about getting hit by a cosmic domain wall—there’s no warning and then there’s nothing, so why worry?)

No, that’s not the mistake. That’s just the way things are now. Oh wait, I have an idea:

Me: Mom, I need $100 for Mrs. Keuling’s class trip.

Mom: Hmm. Didn’t I just give you money for that? …