Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
Upcoming science fiction game “No Man’s Sky” will allow players to explore a vast virtual universe but the most exciting new territory may be that blazed by the game itself: the game’s practically limitless universe is the product of algorithms.
Every planet and its inhabitants are “procedurally generated”, meaning that an algorithm—not a programmer or artist—generates the environment.
Simple rules govern this process. For example, a planet’s distance from a sun determines its moisture levels, which in turn controls rivers, lakes, and weather. If the solar system has a yellow sun or a red giant as its central star, this will affect the color of light in a planet’s atmosphere. Flora and fauna breed, populations changing over time thanks to random “genetic” mutation. All these factors combine to create realistic worlds that are “pleasingly chaotic in the mathematical sense,” according to game creator Sean Murray.
And there are millions of them. “If you were to visit one virtual planet every second then our own sun will have died before you’d have seen them all,” Murray says. There are so many planets that the game’s “testers” are automated bots that wander the universe and send screenshots back to the design team, like virtual space probes transmitting data to terrestrial scientists. No other game to date has attempted world-building on such an ambitious scale. Although its release date is still unannounced, “No Man’s Sky” has already ignited anticipation among gamers eagers to see the frontiers of both its imaginary universe and the technology the game itself represents.
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By vesting powers of creation in an algorithm, the team behind “No Man’s Sky” has stepped into a brave new world of virtual reality, raising questions about the how we define reality in our own universe. Descriptions of the game’s core programming make it sound eerily like our own planet’s natural systems. Laws of nature and physics govern the game’s universe, but the details are unpredictable and the results dynamic. According to the studio team, they don’t know the boundaries of the universe they’ve birthed any more than astronomers know the size of our actual universe. Both are vast enough to require robotic explorers in mapping its geography. The only difference is that the world of “No Man’s Sky” is made of pixels instead of carbon and minerals.
All this suggests that sophisticated algorithms (perhaps run by an advanced artificial intelligence) could create a virtual planet or solar system to mirror our own. If virtual reality technologies develop to engage our other senses—if we could smell an alien planet’s flowers, touch its soil, taste its water—we might not be able to distinguish the algorithmic world from reality. Imagine human spacefarers waking from their cryogenic sleep to map a new solar system or colonize a new world. Their discoveries might be real, or only a simulation experienced while still in stasis.
It makes an interesting religious analogy, setting the universe in motion through some grand algorithm of creation. Or, for those of you who inclined to brain-in-a-vat conspiracies, our own galaxy could be part of a procedurally generated universe!