I see no reason why you couldn’t do exactly the same thing for a robot, or for an abstract simulation. So you have a person who’s really just a simulation inside of a computer, but they interpret themselves as having thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and they feel themselves to be real and to experience their existence.
Now, if it’s a simulated human being, then they wouldn’t be very happy probably unless they also had a simulated body to go with it, so that they could feel their extremities, and sense things. Of course, in order to sense things, there has to be something to sense, and you also want a simulated world for them to live in. This whole scenario makes my point. So now if it’s all done in one computer, you have a simulation of a person’s mind, a person’s body, and of a world for that body to live in. The whole computer can live inside of a featureless box.
A computer engineer who encounters this box without any special knowledge of how it got to be programmed the way it is, wouldn’t really see anything special there. He would look inside, perhaps, and see the program counter counting the memory locations that are happening, and where instructions are coming from. He would look at various portions of memory, and the numbers would be changing, just like they do in any program.
David: Meanwhile, a whole lifetime of adventure is going on inside.
Hans: Right. There would be nothing notable. There would be no appreciation that there’s a person in there suffering, or enjoying life immensely, having daily experiences of deep significance. Only those people with the interpretation, perhaps, that the original programmer had, might be able to see that person in there. Of course, that person in there experiences their own existence regardless of what people outside are seeing or not seeing.
Now, to make this whole thing more explicit, imagine that there’s a second computer which is able to interface with the first computer, through a network or something. The second computer has in it the means to take numbers from the first computer, and interpret them in the way that the original programmer meant, so that it’s able to produce a picture of the world inside the simulation. You can see the person living their life, and experiencing things. You can hear them speak, possibly, and you could even listen in on their thoughts. So if you attach this device to the first box, and look at the screen, there’s the interpretation for you. So there’s no doubt there’s interesting things happening in there, and that there’s really a person in there.
Now, imagine that you could change the representation for a simulation. The next step in the reasoning is just to pick a simpler example. Let’s say in a simulation of fluid flow, you could have certain memory cells represent the pressure, the momentum, and the temperature of little bits of fluid. You have the way it’s usually done, but there’s other ways of doing it too. You could have variables instead represent the intensity and the phase of pressure winds throughout the whole liquid. If you have enough numbers representing all the possible pressure waves, then that’s all you need. That can fully represent the fluid also. You don’t need the original numbers that represented the localized pressures and temperatures.
So you can convert a simulation from the space domain into the frequency domain, and in doing so you’d utterly change the kinds of numbers that are being stored in the memory. You utterly change the way the program that changes those numbers looks. But, if you were clever, you still have a way of interpreting the result so that it looks just like the interpretation that you had of the original formulation.