A Computer Scientist's View of Life, the Universe, and Everything

04/13/1999 ∙ by Juergen Schmidhuber, et al. ∙ IDSIA 0

Is the universe computable? If so, it may be much cheaper in terms of information requirements to compute all computable universes instead of just ours. I apply basic concepts of Kolmogorov complexity theory to the set of possible universes, and chat about perceived and true randomness, life, generalization, and learning in a given universe.



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Assumptions. A long time ago, the Great Programmer wrote a program that runs all possible universes on His Big Computer. “Possible” means “computable”: (1) Each universe evolves on a discrete time scale. (2) Any universe’s state at a given time is describable by a finite number of bits. One of the many universes is ours, despite some who evolved in it and claim it is incomputable.

Computable universes. Let

denote an arbitrary universal Turing machine with unidirectional output tape.

’s input and output symbols are “0”, “1”, and “,” (comma). ’s possible input programs can be ordered alphabetically: “” (empty program), “0”, “1”, “,”, “00”, “01”, “0,”, “10”, “11”, “1,”, “,0”, “,1”, “,,”, “000”, etc. Let denote ’s -th program in this list. Its output will be a finite or infinite string over the alphabet “0”,“1”,“,”. This sequence of bitstrings separated by commas will be interpreted as the evolution of universe . If includes at least one comma, then let denote the -th (possibly empty) bitstring before the -th comma. represents ’s state at the -th time step of (). is represented by the sequence where corresponds to ’s big bang. Different algorithms may compute the same universe. Some universes are finite (those whose programs cease producing outputs at some point), others are not. I don’t know about ours.

TM not important. The choice of the Turing machine is not important. This is due to the compiler theorem: for each universal Turing machine there exists a constant prefix “0”,“1”,“,” such that for all possible programs , ’s output in response to program is identical to ’s output in response to . The prefix is the compiler that compiles programs for into equivalent programs for .

Computing all universes. One way of sequentially computing all computable universes is dove-tailing. is run for one instruction every second step, is run for one instruction every second of the remaining steps, and so on. Similar methods exist for computing many universes in parallel. Each time step of each universe that is computable by at least one finite algorithm will eventually be computed.

Time. The Great Programmer does not worry about computation time. Nobody presses Him. Creatures which evolve in any of the universes don’t have to worry either. They run on local time and have no idea of how many instructions it takes the Big Computer to compute one of their time steps, or how many instructions it spends on all the other creatures in parallel universes.

Regular and Irregular Universes

Finite histories. Let denote the number of symbols in string . Let the partial history denote the substring between the -th and the -th symbol of , . is regular (or compressible, or non-random) if the shortest program that computes (and nothing else) and halts consists of less than symbols. Otherwise is irregular (incompressible, random).

Infinite histories. Similarly, if some universe’s evolution is infinite, then it is compressible if it can be computed by a finite algorithm.

Most universes are irregular. The evolutions of almost all universes are incompressible. There are strings of size , but less than algorithms consisting of less than symbols ( is a positive integer). And for the infinite case, we observe: the number of infinite symbol strings is incountable. Only a negligible fraction (namely countably many of them) can be computed by finite programs.

The few regular universes. There are a few compressible universes which can be computed by very short algorithms, though. For instance, suppose that some evolves according to physical laws that tell us how to compute next states from previous states. All we need to compute ’s evolution is and the algorithm that computes from ().

Noise? Apparently, we live in one of the few highly regular universes. Each electron appears to behave the same way. Dropped breads of butter regularly hit the floor, not the ceiling. There appear to be deviations from regularity, however, embodied by what we call noise. Although certain macroscopic properties (such as pressure in a gas container) are predictable by physicists, microscopic properties (such as precise particle positions) seem subject to noisy fluctuations. Noise represents additional information absent in the original physical laws. Uniform noise is incompressible — there is no short algorithm that computes it and nothing else.

Noise does not necessarily prevent compressibility.

Laws currently used by physicists to model our own universe model noise. Based on Schrödinger’s equation, they are only conditional probability distributions on possible next states, given previous states. The evolution of Schrödinger’s wave function (WF) itself can be computed by a very compact algorithm (given the quantizability assumptions in the first paragraph of this paper) — WF is just a short formula. Whenever WF collapses in a particular way, however, the resulting actual state represents additional information (noise) not conveyed by the algorithm describing the initial state (big bang) and WF. Still, since the noise obviously is non-uniform (due to the nature of the physical laws and WF), our universe’s evolution so far is greatly compressible. How? Well, there is a comparatively short algorithm that simply codes probable next states by few bits, and unlikely next states by many bits, as suggested by standard information theory


More regularity than we think? The longer the shortest program computing a given universe, the more random it is. To certain observers, certain universes appear partly random although they aren’t. There may be at least two reasons for this:

1. Shortest algorithm cannot be found. It can be shown that there is no algorithm that can generate the shortest program for computing arbitrary given data on a given computer [2, 9, 1]. In particular, our physicists cannot expect to find the most compact description of our universe.

2. Additional problems of the Heisenberg type. Heisenberg tells us that we cannot even observe the precise, current state of a single electron, let alone our universe. In our particular universe, our actions seem to influence our measurements in a fundamentally unpredictable way. This does not mean that there is no predictable underlying computational process (whose precise results we cannot access). In fact, rules that hold for observers who are part of a given universe and evolved according to its laws need not hold outside of it. There is no reason to believe that the Great Programmer cannot dump a universe and examine its precise state at any given time, just because the creatures that evolved in it cannot because their measurements modify their world.

How much true randomness? Is there “true” randomness in our universe, in addition to the simple physical laws? True randomness essentially means that there is no short algorithm computing “the precise collapse of the wave function”, and what is perceived as noise by today’s physicists. In fact, if our universe was infinite, and there was true randomness, then it could not be computed by a finite algorithm that computes nothing else. Our fundamental inability to perceive our universe’s state does not imply its true randomness, though. For instance, there may be a very short algorithm computing the positions of electrons lightyears apart in a way that seems like noise to us but actually is highly regular.

All Universes are Cheaper Than Just One

In general, computing all evolutions of all universes is much cheaper in terms of information requirements than computing just one particular, arbitrarily chosen evolution. Why? Because the Great Programmer’s algorithm that systematically enumerates and runs all universes (with all imaginable types of physical laws, wave functions, noise etc.) is very short (although it takes time). On the other hand, computing just one particular universe’s evolution (with, say, one particular instance of noise), without computing the others, tends to be very expensive, because almost all individual universes are incompressible, as has been shown above. More is less!

Many worlds. Suppose there is true (incompressible) noise in state transitions of our particular world evolution. The noise conveys additional information besides the one for initial state and physical laws. But from the Great Programmer’s point of view, almost no extra information (nor, equivalently, a random generator) is required. Instead of computing just one of the many possible evolutions of a probabilistic universe with fixed laws but random noise of a certain (e.g., Gaussian) type, the Great Programmer’s simple program computes them all. An automatic by-product of the Great Programmer’s set-up is the well-known “many worlds hypothesis”, ©Everett III. According to it, whenever our universe’s quantum mechanics allows for alternative next paths, all are taken and the world splits into separate universes. From the Great Programmer’s view, however, there are no real splits — there are just a bunch of different algorithms which yield identical results for some time, until they start computing different outputs corresponding to different noise in different universes.

From an esthetical point of view that favors simple explanations of everything, a set-up in which all possible universes are computed instead of just ours is more attractive. It is simpler.

Are we Run by a Short Algorithm?

Since our universes’ history so far is regular, it by itself could

have been computed by a relatively short algorithm. Essentially, this algorithm embodies the physical laws plus the information about the historical noise. But there are many algorithms whose output sequences start with our universe’s history so far. Most of them are very long. How likely is it now that our universe is indeed run by a short algorithm? To attempt an answer, we need a prior probability on the possible algorithms. The obvious candidate is the “universal prior”.

Universal prior. Define , the a priori probability of a finite symbol string (such as the one representing our universe’s history so far), as the probability of guessing a halting program that computes on a universal Turing machine . Here, the way of guessing is defined by the following procedure: initially, the input tape consists of a single square. Whenever the scanning head of the program tape shifts to the right, do: (1) Append a new square. (2) With probability fill it with a “0”; with probability fill it with a “1”; with probability fill it with a “,”. Programs are “self-delimiting” [3, 1] — once halts due to computations based on the randomly chosen symbols (the program) on its input tape, there won’t be any additional program symbols. We obtain

Clearly, the sum of all probabilities of all halting programs cannot exceed 1 (no halting program can be the prefix of another one). But certain programs may lead to non-halting computations.

Under different universal priors (based on different universal machines), probabilities of a given string differ by no more than a constant factor independent of the string size, due to the compiler theorem (the constant factor corresponds to the probability of guessing a compiler). This justifies the name “universal prior,” also known as Solomonoff-Levin distribution.

Dominance of shortest programs. It can be shown (the proof is non-trivial) that the probability of guessing any of the programs computing some string and the probability of guessing one of its shortest programs are essentially equal (they differ by no more than a constant factor depending on the particular Turing machine). The probability of a string is dominated by the probabilities of its shortest programs. This is known as the “coding theorem” [3]. Similar coding theorems exist for the case of non-halting programs which cease requesting additional input symbols at a certain point.

Now back to our question: are we run by a relatively compact algorithm? So far our universe could have been run by one — its history could have been much noisier and thus much less compressible. Hence universal prior and coding theorems suggest that the algorithm is indeed short. If it is, then there will be less than maximal randomness in our future, and more than vanishing predictability. We may hope that our universe will remain regular, as opposed to drifting off into irregularity.

Life in a Given Universe

Recognizing life. What is life? The answer depends on the observer. For instance, certain substrings of may be interpretable as the life of a living thing in . Different observers will have different views, though. What’s life to one observer will be noise to another. In particular, if the observer is not like the Great Programmer but also inhabits , then its own life may be representable by a similar substring. Assuming that recognition implies relating observations to previous knowledge, both ’s and the observer’s life will have to share mutual algorithmic information [1]: there will be a comparatively short algorithm computing ’s from the observer’s life, and vice versa.

Of course, creatures living in a given universe don’t have to have any idea of the symbol strings by which they are represented.

Possible limitations of the Great Programmer. He does not need not be very smart. For instance, in some of His universes phenomena will appear that humans would call life. The Great Programmer won’t have to be able to recognize them.

The Great Programmer reappears. Several of the Great Programmer’s universes will feature another Great Programmer who programs another Big Computer to run all possible universes. Obviously, there are infinite chains of Great Programmers. If our own universe allowed for enough storage, enough time, and fault-free computing, then you could be one of them.

Generalization and Learning

In general, generalization is impossible. Given the history of a particular universe up to a given time, there are infinitely many possible continuations. Most of these continuations have nothing to do with the previous history. To see this, suppose we have observed a partial history (the substring between the -th and the -th symbol of ). Now we want to generalize from previous experience to predict , . To do this, we need an algorithm that computes from ( may be stored on a separate, additional input tape for an appropriate universal Turing machine). There are possible futures. But for , there are less than algorithms with less than bits computing such a future, given . Hence in most cases the shortest algorithm computing the future, given the past, won’t be much shorter than the shortest algorithm computing the future from nothing. Both will have about the size of the entire future. In other words, the mutual algorithmic information between history and future will be zero. As a consequence, in most universes (those that can be computed by long algorithms only), successful generalization from previous experience is not possible. Neither is inductive transfer. This simple insight is related to results in [10].

Learning. Given the above, since learning means to use previous experience to improve future performance, learning is possible only in the few regular universes (no learning without compressibility). On the other hand, regularity by itself is not sufficient to allow for learning. For instance, there is a highly compressible and regular universe represented by “,,,,,,,…”. It is too simple to allow for processes we would be willing to call learning.

In what follows, I will assume that a regular universe is complex enough to allow for identifying certain permanent data structures of a general learner to be described below. For convenience, I will abstract from bitstring models, and instead talk about environments, rewards, stacks etc. Of course, all these abstract concepts are representable as bitstrings.

Scenario. In general, the learner’s life is limited. To it, time will be important (not to the Great Programmer though). Suppose its life in environment lasts from time 0 to unknown time . In between it repeats the following cycle over and over again ( denotes a set of possible actions): select and execute with probability , where the modifiable policy

is a variable, conditional probability distribution on the possible actions, given current

. Action will consume time and may change and . Actions that modify are called primitive learning algorithms (PLAs). influences the way is modified (“self-modification”). Policy modification processes (PMPs) are action subsequences that include PLAs. The -th PMP in system life is denoted PMP, starts at time , ends at , , and computes a sequence of -modifications denoted . Both and are computed dynamically by special instructions in executed according to itself: says when to start and end PMPs.

Occasionally provides real-valued reward. The cumulative reward obtained in between time 0 and time is denoted by (where ). At each PMP-start the learner’s goal is to use experience to generate -modifications to accelerate future reward intake. Assuming that reward acceleration is possible at all, given and , how can the learner achieve it? I will describe a rather general way of doing so.

The success-story criterion. Each PMP-start time will trigger an evaluation of the system’s performance so far. Since is computed according to , incorporates information about when to evaluate itself. Evaluations may cause policy modifications to be undone (by restoring the previous policy — in practical implementations, this requires to store previous values of modified policy components on a stack). At a given PMP-start in the learner’s life, let denot the set of those previous whose corresponding have not been undone yet. If is not empty, then let denote the -th such time, ordered according to size. The success-story criterion SSC is satisfied if either is empty (trivial case) or if

SSC essentially says that each surviving -modification corresponds to a long term reward acceleration. Once SSC is satisfied, the learner continues to act and learn until the next PMP-start. Since there may be arbitrary reward delays in response to certain action subsequences, it is important that indeed includes actions for delaying performance evaluations — the learner will have to learn when to trigger evaluations. Since the success of a policy modification recursively depends on the success of later modifications for which it is setting the stage, the framework provides a basis for “learning how to learn”. Unlike with previous learning paradigms, the entire life is considered for performance evaluations. Experiments in [7, 6] show the paradigm’s practical feasibility. For instance, in [7] includes an extension of Levin search [4] for generating the PMPs.


Life after death. Members of certain religious sects expect resurrection of the dead in a paradise where lions and lambs cuddle each other. There is a possible continuation of our world where they will be right. In other possible continuations, however, lambs will attack lions.

According to the computability-oriented view adopted in this paper, life after death is a technological problem, not a religious one. All that is necessary for some human’s resurrection is to record his defining parameters (such as brain connectivity and synapse properties etc.), and then dump them into a large computing device computing an appropriate virtual paradise. Similar things have been suggested by various science fiction authors. At the moment of this writing, neither appropriate recording devices nor computers of sufficient size exist. There is no fundamental reason, however, to believe that they won’t exist in the future.

Body and soul. More than 2000 years of European philosophy dealt with the distinction between body and soul. The Great Programmer does not care. The processes that correspond to our brain firing patterns and the sound waves they provoke during discussions about body and soul correspond to computable substrings of our universe’s evolution. Bitstrings representing such talk may evolve in many universes. For instance, sound wave patterns representing notions such as body and soul and “consciousness” may be useful in everyday language of certain inhabitants of those universes. From the view of the Great Programmer, though, such bitstring subpatterns may be entirely irrelevant. There is no need for Him to load them with “meaning”.

Talking about the incomputable. Although we live in a computable universe, we occasionally chat about incomputable things, such as the halting probability of a universal Turing machine (which is closely related to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem). And we sometimes discuss inconsistent worlds in which, say, time travel is possible. Talk about such worlds, however, does not violate the consistency of the processes underlying it.

Conclusion. By stepping back and adopting the Great Programmer’s point of view, classic problems of philosophy go away.


Thanks to Christof Schmidhuber for interesting discussions on wave functions, string theory, and possible universes.


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