Microsoft helped theoretical physicists explore the implications of our potentially autodidactic universe

The Visitor’s Center at Microsoft Headquarters campus is pictured July 17, 2014 in Redmond, Washington.
The Visitor’s Center at Microsoft Headquarters campus is pictured July 17, 2014 in Redmond, Washington. (Image credit: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images for Microsoft)

What you need to know

  • Theoretical physicists are positing the idea that our universe is self-learning.
  • This would mean that it's learning about itself at the same time we are.
  • Microsoft provided support for the work the physicists carried out.

Who doesn't love theoretical physics papers on a Friday? Today, on April 9, a hefty seventy-nine-page research paper entitled "The Autodidactic Universe" was posted online (via TNW). Its authors include physicists from Brown University and the Flatiron Institute.

The Microsoft connection is straightforward. According to the paper's acknowledgments section, Microsoft provided "computational, logistical and other general support" for the work that made the paper's creation possible. Kevin Scott, Microsoft's chief technology officer and executive vice president of Technology & Research, received a personal shoutout for his support.

So what exactly was Microsoft helping empower theoretical physicists to write about? Well, to put it simply: the theory that our universe is a massive machine that's constantly learning about itself. Much like we, human beings, understand ourselves, our limits, and our abilities more and more as we age, the idea goes that the universe is on a similar journey, evolving its own laws as it learns more about them.

Pretty crazy, right? Here's a fascinating passage from page sixty-six of the paper for your enjoyment, education, and mystification:

The example of memes in human social structures show that a learning system that is not constrained by "brute survival" can sometimes become dominated by "economic network effects" in self-reference. It is interesting to consider cosmological criteria other than brute survival that might give rise to autodidactic structures that are resistant to becoming unconnected to an environment.

This isn't the first time that Microsoft and the idea of memes as a basis for worldly understanding have crossed paths. Far from it—memes were the centerpiece of an interactive virtual philosophy class that went by the name of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, released on Microsoft's Xbox 360 back in 2013. It's been a while since memes' impact on our understanding of the universe overlapped with Microsoft's operations, but now, eight years later, it's happened again.

Robert Carnevale

Robert Carnevale is the News Editor for Windows Central. He's a big fan of Kinect (it lives on in his heart), Sonic the Hedgehog, and the legendary intersection of those two titans, Sonic Free Riders. He is the author of Cold War 2395. Have a useful tip? Send it to

  • Sounds like Deep Thought's reason for commissioning the building of the Earth and its fjords in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy... (for those who didn't read it, the Earth, unknown to its residents (us) was a giant computer running for billions of years constructed solely to help an alien civilization understand the meaning of life)
  • Hope MS was somehow compensated for supporting this (non-technical) exercise in navel gazing.
    Or maybe the MS personnel were laughing tbeir heads off all the while.
    Cosmology, Brown University style.
    (Totally ignoring that the Cosmological Principle is the basic Axiom of Physics. Do away with it and go home to blow your brains out.)
    Harvard has a professor that sees aliens behind a hunk of frozen nitrogen and Brown has folks that see a universe-wide FTL feedback loop.
    They're a week too late. How about a piece on the Muon G-2 Anomaly instead?
    Or the TAE fusion prototype?
    Lots of computational resources going into those; it'd be interesting to see what tools those folks use.
  • fjtorres, while I agree that the topic of study described here is a bit silly, as long as they’re producing new data analyses, it could still yield useful information. Even the meaning of the Cosmological Principle you reference has changed over time (sort of). Originally, it was believed that the uniformity regardless of point of observation meant that stars were spread evenly through the universe, then galaxies, and today we believe that it’s clusters and superclusters of galaxies with large empty voids elsewhere, similar to how sand settles on wave node lines on a beating drum, with empty space between them. How confident can we be that this mapping won’t evolve further? As someone who clearly knows his physics, you are surely familiar with the recent observation that the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating. Assuming that observation isn’t countered by future studies, that is fascinating, because it should be impossible by any current understanding of physics – even if not enough to overcome the current rate of expansion (i.e., if we’re past escape velocity for the universe), gravity should be causing the rate of expansion to slow. Does this reveal a large-scale antigravity force that is imperceptible on the relatively “small” scale of a few galaxies (like the upcoming crash between the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies)? Does it indicate some underlying geometric spatial expansion? Whatever the explanation, the answer may come from trying to answer questions that seem silly at first.
  • The current version of the Cosmological principle is that the underlying "laws of nature" (whatever they may be) are uniform across space and time. Any acceleration (if proven--the measured rates differ by measurement method) would be due to those conditions. It might be dark energy, it might be quantized inertia, or even an unknown "pressure force" produced by dark matter (which itself may or not exist) but whatever it is it needs to be "baked in" from the Big Bang just like the Cosmic Background, the cosmic web, and even the great void. What this "learning universe" proposes is a form of universal scale feedback. And as long as Inflation Theory is on the table the total universe must be larger than the observable/communicable region bounded by the speed of light. To be a truly *universal* phenomenon such feedback would require FTL information diffusion (beyond tbe lightspeed horizon) and Laws that vary with time and location. Which would break all of physics. So yes, this is silly. Sounds like an extended GAIA Theory, which is more relgion than science or even philosophy. Wouldn't even fly as bad SyFy fodder.
    Not impressed.
  • I can only hope that while dealing with Microsoft, my fellow physicists gave Microsoft crap for its continued misuse of the word "hologram" to describe things that are very much not holograms.
  • What a ridiculous article. "Microsoft provided "computational, logistical and other general support" for the work that made the paper's creation possible." Translation: The "theoretical physicists" used a Surface laptop and Word to write the paper. If any of the "theoretical physicists" used an iPhone to text each other, then "Apple helped theoretical physicists explore the implications of our potentially autodidactic universe" is an equally plausible - and equally meaningless - headline.
  • I mean, it's not like physicists do any serious computational work.
  • To give some perspective to the inevitable OMG LIKE THIS IS SO STUPID comments, here is a complete list of the institutions the authors are affiliated with: Brown Theoretical Physics Center and Department of Physics, Brown
    Center for Computational Astrophysics, CCA, Flatiron Institute
    Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics
    Agnostiq Inc.
    Microsoft Research
    University of Michigan Obviously just a bunch of idiots, amirite?