As computers become progressively faster and more powerful, they’ve gained the impressive capacity to simulate increasingly realistic environments. Which raises a question familiar to aficionados of The Matrix—might life and the world as we know it be a simulation on a super advanced computer? “Digital physicists” have developed this idea well beyond the sci-fi possibilities, suggesting a new scientific paradigm in which computation is not just a tool for approximating reality, but is also the basis of reality itself. In place of elementary particles, think bits; in place of fundamental laws of physics, think computer algorithms. But is this a viable approach? Is the universe the ultimate computer running some grand cosmic code? A discussion among the brightest minds in digital physics to explore math, computer science, theories of consciousness, the origin of life, and free will—and delve into a world of information that may underlie everything.
More from this series: Rebooting the Cosmos
Three-time Peabody Award winner, four-time Emmy Award winner, and Dateline NBC correspondent John Hockenberry has broad experience as a journalist and commentator for more than two decades. Hockenberry is the anchor of the public radio show The Takeaway on WNYC and PRI. He has reported from all over the world, in virtually every medium, having anchored programs for network, cable, and radio. Hockenberry is a noted presenter and moderator at conferences such as TED, Aspen Ideas, and the World Science Festival.
Edward Fredkin’s computer career started in 1956 when the Air Force assigned him to work at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories. In 1968 he started at MIT as a full professor. From 1971 to 1974 he was the Director of CSAIL (formerly “LCS” or “Project MAC”). He spent a year at Caltech as a Fairchild Distinguished Scholar, working with Richard Feynman, and was a Professor of Physics at Boston University for 6 years. More recently he has been a Distinguished Career Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and also a Visiting Professor at MIT.
Fredkin has been broadly interested in computation: hardware and software. He is the inventor of many things including the Trie data structure, the Fredkin Gate and the Billiard Ball Model. Fredkin and his students did pioneering work on cellular automata and reversible computing. He has also been involved in computer vision, chess and other areas of AI research. Fredkin also works at the intersection of theoretical issues in the physics of computation and computational models of physics. He recently developed Salt, a model of computation based on fundamental conservation laws from physics.
A founding member and faculty at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, a research institute devoted to foundational issues in theoretical physics, Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara is a leading researcher in the problem of quantum gravity. Her investigations include the microscopic structure of space-time and the role of causality at very high energies.
Born in Athens, Greece, she received her Ph.D. in theoretical physics from London’s Imperial College, and has held postdoctoral positions at Pennsylvania State University, Imperial College, and the Albert Einstein/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Berlin.
Jürgen Schmidhuber has published over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers on artificial intelligence, machine learning, mathematically optimal universal AI, artificial curiosity and creativity, adaptive robotics, algorithmic information and complexity theory, computable universes and digital physics, the formal theory of beauty, and fine arts. His lab’s research on artificial neural nets won several handwriting recognition contests and number one rankings in several computer vision competitions and benchmarks.
An elected member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, Schmidhuber obtained his doctoral degree in computer science from Technische Universität München (TUM) in 1991 and his habilitation degree in 1993, after a postdoctoral stay at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He currently serves as professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Lugano in Switzerland and professor SUPSI. From 2004-2008, he was professor extraordinarius at TUM. As director of the Swiss Artificial Intelligence Lab IDSIA he helped to transform it into one of the world’s top ten artificial intelligence labs, according to Business Week magazine.
Seth Lloyd is currently the professor of quantum-mechanical engineering at MIT and the director of the W.M. Keck Center for Extreme Quantum Information Theory. Working with a variety of groups to construct and operate quantum computers and quantum communication systems, Lloyd is the first person to develop a realizable model for quantum computation. His research focuses on the role of information in complex systems and the quantum mechanics of living systems (known as ‘quantum life’), economics, and cosmology. Lloyd is the author of over a hundred scientific papers, including the publication Programming the Universe.