The Infinite Improbability Drive is a fictional machine from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that puts its users through highly improbable events.
The driving force behind our theoretical Infinite Improbability Drive is Quantum Suicide.
Quantum Suicide is basically Schrodinger’s Cat, but with you as the cat.
The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III
Everett’s theory is as such:
Everything follows the Schrodinger equation. Always.
This means that when we open up the box to observe Schrodinger’s Cat, we aren’t collapsing the waveform due to our observation. This makes our universe essentially deterministic, which also pisses off some people1.
The reason “big” objects aren’t in superposition isn’t that we aren’t looking at them. Rather, it’s because they are already being observed by the things around them.
This is because wave collapse isn’t based on whether something observing is “conscious” or not. It’s based on particles bouncing around and hitting other particles. Naturally, an object large enough to be seen is already interacting with light, air, etc.
This is why engineers go to great lengths to isolate quantum computers in super-cold vacuums. Although, quantum computers deserve their own post for their god-like Level III Multiverse-exploiting capabilities, so look forward to that.
So, to clarify, Everett’s theory was not meant to be a radical theory talking parallel worlds. All of that is just an interpretation of his theory, and unfortunately, that interpretation has been giving his theory a bad rep.
People don’t really look at the source material unless they’re smart professors or a weird Swedish guy, so it’s understandable why nobody took Everett seriously.
The constant splitting of universes means that there is essentially any and every parallel reality you could imagine due to the infinite monkey theorem.
Take this one step further, and if our consciousness only exists when/where we are alive, then we’d theoretically live forever and never die. Here’s where the real weirdness begins.
Max Tegmark’s Quantum Suicide Experiment
The following thought experiment tests whether or not Everett’s theory is correct, but you are literally betting your own life to figure it out.
All you need is a machine gun, a trigger mechanism, and a machine to measure a quark for whether it is up or down, which corresponds to the machine outputting a 1 or 0 with 50/50 chance of either output.
The output is then hooked up to a trigger that controls the machine-gun.
If the machine outputs a one, the gun will fire. If it outputs a zero you will hear a very loud click, but nothing will happen.
The trigger mechanism doesn’t really matter as long as the gap of time between the measurement and the firing of the gun is below human perception.
- The measuring machine must be quantum. Possible methods include firing protons at a silver screen to see which ones pass or the use of a Stern-Gerlach machine.
- Death must be faster than you can perceive (more on this later). The killing mechanism must be flawless and kill with 100% certainty.
Your creation complete, you aim the machine at a wall and let it run. Surely enough, it fires at random intervals. Bang-click-click-bang-click-bang…
The next part of the experiment is the part that requires you to be very dedicated.
You stick your head in front of the gun.
If Everett is wrong then it’ll take a few seconds for you to end up on the floor in a pile of blood.
However, if Everett is right then you’ll hear the random firing patterns of the machine gun suddenly change to click-click-click-click-click…
Our Perception of Quantum Suicide
The realities where we die are unperceivable because we’re dead before we know it. Thus, the only copy of us that we can perceive is the reality where we live. We never see all of the other dead versions of ourselves. This means there’s a 100% chance of us experiencing ‘survival.’
Sit in front of the gun for a whole minute and your chances of surviving decreases exponentially at 50% each second. We end up splicing reality into at least 120 new branches, half of which are ones where we survive for a little while, but the possibility to achieve the only one where you live after the whole minute is 1 out of 2^60.
If you wanted to convince all your friends to believe you, hooking up the quantum trigger to a massive bomb or a chain of machine-guns would be possible, but you probably wouldn’t be friends afterward.
The only way to convince everyone that quantum suicide works (if it works) is to hook up the quantum trigger to a solar system-destroying machine with a 100% chance of eradicating the entire human species.
There are also theories that the Large Hadron Collider works as a collective quantum suicide experiment where the killing mechanism is the creation of a man-made black hole, which would be capable of the aforementioned solar system-destruction required for our dream quantum suicide experiment.
The only problem is the fact that the LHC won’t make a black hole. I mean, it might make mini black holes, but those aren’t a big deal because they decay really, really fast and mini black holes would be pretty normal due to the fact that Earth is constantly bombarded with cosmic rays more powerful than anything in the LHC2.
Why Isn’t Anyone Else Immortal?
Well, they theoretically are. 3
To us, that doesn’t seem to be true, but we’re the external observers.
If somebody else did the Quantum Machine-Gun experiment they would only experience the reality where they survive. However, we would most likely be in a reality where that person dies.
This raises a question about whether our consciousness is untouchable by quantum mechanics. It also raises more questions about your self-worth, as if we needed more of that.
Breaking Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that when we observe quantum particles we change them, and we can’t tell what happens to them or what state they were in, to begin with.
A good analogy is throwing a yoga ball at things on a table to figure out the positions of the objects on it by observing the ball’s bounce, trajectory, return time, etc.
However, the yoga ball will inevitably knock over a few things before bouncing back. After we observe what’s on the table it will have changed, and we don’t know what it was like before we observed, either.
Everett says that this isn’t true. Instead, the world running on the Schrodinger equation just ‘splits’4 for every possibility rather than changing every time something is observed, which effectively puts everything we thought about quantum mechanics and freedom on its head, but it heavily reduces the size of your physics textbook because all that stuff about waveform and probability is thrown out the window, too.
Coherent superposition? Bah, decohesion is more exciting.
Everett decided that instead of all of our observations causing wave collapse there was a universal wave function that has the possibility for all imaginable and unimaginable universes.
Our perception of randomness would just be our inability to experience the other universes where the alternate futures happened. Once superposition breaks, the universes have taken different paths.5
Don’t Actually Do This
While this is certainly a fun topic, the non-lethal way to do this (but without all of the dramatic stuff) is to live. If after many, many extremely improbable events you become the only human on Earth, then the riddle is solved.
However, if you die, then Everett is wrong.
Mir Faizal: “Normally, when people think of the multiverse, they think of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, where every possibility is actualised. This cannot be tested and so it is philosophy and not science.”
If your quantum suicide setup was done correctly with a 100% flawless killing mechanism, then there’ll be a limit on how long the experiment can run before a highly improbable event interferes with the experiment, such as:
- Power outage.
- Biological warfare wipes out half the planet, or maybe everybody except you.
- Supermassive volcanic eruption blows everything up.
- Alien invasion with giant toaster robots.
- “Tiny” solar flare hits Earth
- Ninety atomic bombs detonate worldwide and force humanity to live in underground vaults filled with creatures from Fallout 4 (you’ll become the leader of the mole people).
- Earth-sized asteroid impacts Earth and you survive somehow.
- Moon-sized asteroid impacts the Moon and the fragments impact Earth and you survive somehow.
- Mars-sized asteroid impacts Mars and the fragments impact the Moon and the fragments impact the Earth and you survive somehow.
- Distant alien Kerr black hole power plant blows up, sending a powerful laser beam that wipes out Earth in three seconds and you survive somehow.
- Deterministic random-number generators fail worldwide and stock market systems crash, resulting in a The Purge-esque massacre ran by angry investors switching gears to run an international cheap hitman-for-hire business to regain lost capital.
- The people running our computer simulation do a reboot to stop your experiment and they laugh at the idea that some NPCs tried to unravel glitches in the code.
- A cosmic string slaps Earth and you survive somehow.
As of now we still don’t know how to theoretically control this theoretical Infinite Improbability Drive because our machine would probably be destroyed in a string of highly improbable events every time we tried to use it.
Simple IID: Quantum Measurement > Signal Interpreter > Trigger + Killing Mechanism
If we could control our Infinite Improbability Drive to only kill us if quantum weirdness led to a desired event we would be able to control reality.
The problem is we’d need a way to calculating and sensing whether or not we “landed” in our desired reality before we could perceive anything at all.
An obvious fix for this is to be unconscious before the experiment starts, which is what I hinted at in one of my badly placed footnotes somewhere at the top of this post.
Complex IID (Ars Magna): Quantum Measurement > Signal Interpreter + Quantum Computer that calculates the future > Trigger + Killing Mechanism
A complex Infinite Improbability Drive would be able to do all of that universe-bending magic. But for now, I’ll settle for my boring mundane life and play the waiting game.
Here is an extremely arbitrary Ars Magna:
1 – Go to sleep
2 – The machine senses if a highly unlikely movement of quarks led to a bank error where your balance went up by 500,000 dollars.
3 – If you don’t get the money you’ll be killed. If you get the money you won’t be killed.
Me: Huh? Wait, I think someone’s at my door…
Me: Yes? Who is it?
Me: *Looks out window* Oh shit, it’s the solipsists! Wait, is that an police car in the back?
Marshall Theo: Hello, I’m Marshall Theo Retical. I’m here to inform you that you landed on the suicide watchlist lol.
Me: God damnit, should I include a disclaimer to protect myself?
Marshall Theo: Um sure.
Disclaimer: Do not build a machine that kills/maims/harms/obliterates you, a group of people, or the solar system; even if it’s just for shits and giggles.