The Youngness Problem - When mind blowing reality snowballs into super heroes


This is an idea that I have been working on to understand this year, but was afraid to tell anyone. Usually it is safe to tell people something mind blowing, that gives you a “whoa” experience and that’s it. Nothing changes significantly. An entirely different thing when a mind blowing idea leads to another more mind blowing idea and this creates a snowball effect, which might have a similar characteristic of that of radiation. A little bit is good in certain frequencies, after all it is what keeps us warm, but too much of it in the wrong frequencies and you die.

First, the reason I am telling you this is because I am considering using The Youngness Problem as part of the story in a game. However, due to the mind-blowing-snowball-effect of it, I was worried about the health effect it would have on people. After all, I don’t want people to get hurt, only expand their thinking horizon a bit.

A second reason is that this idea is so vast and full of potential that I do not want to keep it to myself. There are so many good stories, concepts and gameplay that could come out of this that I want to see what other game developers can do with it. However, my worry about people getting hurt prevented me from making the idea more known, since I was genuinely concerned that this might be a bit too mind blowing, reaching a critical mass, and spiraling out of control.

Luckily, it turns out that the idea has been known for years, but not mainstream, and so far nobody died. Even better, the idea has not been that widespread despite repeated exposure, which means there is enough natural resistance of thinking about it that people go on to live their normal lives. I now have learned enough about how people react to it, also by talking to other people about it, that it seems safe to let the idea take root among game developers. However, proceed with caution, and I advise people to seek help if this is just too mind blowing.

Challenges of stories in games

We live in world with a lot of scientific knowledge about the world, which makes it hard to make a story that involves super powers and futuristic scenarios without people creating a mental barrier between what is real and what is fiction. The problem of super powers is very significant, because there is almost no way that you can do an interesting game mechanics based on it and at the same time claim it has a scientific nature.

People usually dismiss super powers as something that never will happen, despite science increasingly gives us abilities that classify as super powers in old science fiction. This leads to a kind of decoupling, where people do not expect themselves to achieve anything of significance while not seeing how their situation could turn into something equally or even more mind blowing reality with the progress of science.

  • How can we create a story that makes people think it is applicable to the real world, when it involves super powers?
  • How can we make futuristic scenarios look plausible, not just according to physical laws, but something that actually might be a possible future?

The dream I have when making a story is to create something so awesome that people just start doing it. Imagine somebody watching the movie The Matrix and then suddenly knew kung fu and started dodging bullets. Even more, it would be absurd if people expected that to happen, that this was quite ordinary because they thought The Matrix was founded on science. It was just how their world worked.

The Youngness Problem is something, so mind blowing, that it might seem like an impossible challenge in story telling pre-2016, and completely natural in the years afterwards. It is not something we might know for certain as a scientific fact for a very long time, but you would not be able to easily dismiss it as pure fantasy, based on what we already know about the world we live in.

How The Youngness Problem works

OK, so this is where the mind blowing part begins.

There is an algorithm that can make people navigating a labyrinth take the shortest path even though they make arbitrary and random choices of which direction to go.

If you did not fully understood the sentence above, please read it again. YES. There is a such algorithm, and you can easily test it for yourself in an afternoon. Arbitrary and random choices might, under certain circumstances, lead to optimized results.

Before I explain the details, let me remind you that the only thing you need to explain how people suddenly get amazing super powers, is by applying the conditions for The Youngness Problem. There is no need to justify it through the intelligence of the main characters, even though it contributes a great deal. On the other hand, simply by exploiting the effect of The Youngness Problem, you can make the characters getting suddenly a lot more intelligent, and then do whatever you need to obtain the other super powers through other means.

Best of all, it appeals to young people, the main target market for games, because it is literally in the name The Youngness Problem. The younger people are, the more reason they have to believe that something like that effect could apply in reality, for themselves! If you wonder why super hero movies and games sell so well, it is because people like to imagine themselves in that situation, and what do you think will happen if they got hands on a story where this is plausible, with some imagination, to happen in the real world, with themselves playing a main role?

Now, at this point you might feel dying from not knowing yet how this works, so here is the algorithm:

  1. Increase the number of people walking the labyrinth exponentially over time
  2. At any point in the labyrinth, you can ask people which path they took, and most of them will answer with the shortest path

That’s it! Is is so simple! Don’t believe it? Write the algorithm and test it yourself!

You now have the keys to unlock rest of the hack, because if you can make most people take the shortest path in a labyrinth, you can basically solve any problem the same way: The ultimate cheat to explain how anything implausible did happen, is by explaining how the main character is a random observer among an exponentially growing number of observers, that coincidentally happens to be not visible and there are no unfortunate side effects from other weird predictions.

How to shoehorn The Youngness Problem into fitting any super hero story

The rest of this post is to explain how you get from the cheat of a simple algorithm to something that sounds scientific plausible:

  1. How to justify that there are an exponentially growing number of observers
  2. How to get rid of unwanted side effects that do not align with the story of a super hero
  3. How two super heroes or more can exist locally within the same universe

It seems at first glance very difficult to justify how the conditions apply to your game’s universe, even if there exists an algorithm that produces the observer effect you want. However, if you take the two most mind blowing ideas we have about the real universe and combine them, you get precisely this: Anything amazing might happen anytime soon.

1. Eternal cosmic inflation

The first idea is one that explains how there can be an exponentially growing number of observers:

You can read more about this on the web, but the basic principle is: To explain how our universe began, the best theory we have is that space went under an extremely rapid expansion by repulsive gravity matter, perhaps a form of dark energy. When simulating this process forward, it easily leads to scenarios where this expansion continues forever, forming an infinite number of “pocket universes”.

This is where the exponential growing number of observers comes from. In classical physics (Newtonian), this should result in the conditions of The Youngness Problem. With relativity and quantum mechanics the picture becomes more nuanced and difficult to interpret. Yet, even when using the best techniques we have today, there are ways of counting these universes that yields similar predictions to the classical model of time. See the paper of Alan Guth for more information.

Cosmic inflation has the perfect ingredients for justifying why there are an exponentially growing number of observers like us: Every universe with a similar vacuum state starts out with a similar condition. I believe there is some controversy among cosmologists whether the inflation goes through a phase of slow rolling or fast rolling affects the predictions, but it does not matter.

For a fictional universe it is sufficient to assume that there are enough universes like ours that it occludes the anthropic probabilities we can assign to local observations after doing a Bayesian update on our beliefs from the evidence of eternal cosmic inflation. This is the most technically accurate description I can give from what I know.

There are many counter arguments, but they all make assumptions about how the universe works in addition to what we already know about the universe. Cosmologists struggle to find theories that makes as few assumptions as possible, since the effect of the eternal inflation is so extremely large that it can mess up predictions when they test the theories.

Some of these theories, that are considered by professional cosmologists, are just mind blowing:

  • Reality might be undefined outside the cosmological horizon of the observer
  • Quantum mechanics might allow an isomorphism between reality outside the cosmological horizon and parallel decoherent worlds under Everett interpretation (many-worlds is the same as the multiverse)
  • Our pocket universe might have collided with another one and this could show up in the cosmic background radiation we are measuring right now
  • Our pocket universe might be colliding right now and we could be wiped out any moment at the speed of light
  • There might be observers out there that see the multiverse
  • The number of physical states in the universe could be increasing infinitely (meaning it can not be simulated by a computer with finite states)
  • We might be the only civilization in the observable universe, since there are more pocket universes where observers find themselves among the first civilizations (YES, this actually predicts that finding no aliens is a kind-of-evidence for eternal cosmic inflation)
  • Our particular kind of physics might be “special” to our pocket universe. There can be other universes out there with different particles and even other dimensions!

This must be an exciting time for cosmologists to live in.

Yet, there is no easy explanation to dismiss the hypothesis “we live in an eternal cosmic inflating universe”, without going into details about Boltzmann brains and increased microstates in high temperature equilibriums. Those are very elusive and computationally intractable problems, that suffer mainly from that we do not have an accurate physical theory of observers. I think there is a very good possibility that on a gut-level one could believe there are an exponentially growing number of observers like us, using the gut-level understanding of current physics.

Btw, the Youngness Problem originates from cosmology. This is not something I am making up!

2 and 3. Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics (many-worlds)

This idea is how you can basically explain away everything you do not want in the story of your game, using The Youngness Problem.

It does not work as scientific theory, but it is a crack in reality that you can squeeze through, and game developers like myself are not the kind the people that let an opportunity like this go by. It is time to milk this for what it is worth, in particular before scientists explain the whole thing in a simple equation!

I have not found any papers yet about this subject, it is a lot of material to go through. Probably because it is way too hard to make the math work, and any serious cosmologist would likely not raise this controversial subject before a proper measure of counting pocket universes exists. However, it fits perfect in a setting of a super hero story! I can’t believe I am the first person to think of this, so there must be somebody out there that has analyzed this in detail.

The argument go like this: In a system with high freedom of degrees that give raise to self-aware observers, there are infinitely more self-aware observers in decoherent Everett branches than in systems with less degrees of freedom.

This is an idea I made up to get rid of Boltzmann brains, even though I have no idea how it applies to microstates in thermal equilibrium. However, intuitively this idea seems that it could work by considering 1D observers evolving over discrete states, using the rules of Pascal’s triangle that gives the number of paths for 1D by summing up the intersecting previous states. Nobody has yet proven it can’t work in a quantum mechanical universe, so I am using it!

Since we do not have an accurate physical theory of observers, the following might just as well be non-sense, but it does not matter since I want to use it in a story, and not in science.

Why this works for a super hero story:

  1. The super hero saves lives, right?
  2. More lives = more degrees of freedom for self-aware observers in parallel universe branches
  3. Therefore, the super hero is likely to exists in the local universe under The Youngness Problem conditions

Of course you can swap “super hero” with any object, such as agricultural innovation, artificial intelligence or even sun cream that does not go away in sea water. It makes it sound even more plausible because these things already exists or developed now, while we live. If you live while artificial intelligence is being invented, why not expect to see a super hero, or even become one yourself!

This is what makes it a snowball effect: More and more observations can be made to make it sound plausible because they are improbable on large time scales and happens nearly at the same time!

That those things did not exist a long time ago can be explained by the effect of The Youngness Problem: It is implausible that you find yourself in a universe where it happened even one second earlier in time, because you would then observe your own state being comparatively one second older. Therefore you see all those inventions while you live, or the most rapid growth of them.

However, the effect of parallel branches from the same timeline, is that the physical events that produces a maximum number of observers across all the branches is far harder to understand than in a classical timeline. You can use the excuse that A happened instead of B because it leads to more self-aware observers overall. For example, the super hero tried something, but failed at first, but then succeeded later. The first fail would have succeeded in another timeline. The failure is the effect of decoherence, and the one that the observer sees succeed is just the most plausible one.

Next, how do you explain that people suddenly get super powers? You do it this way: An early acquisition of powers, but somewhat physical plausible, leads to safe guarding a large number of self-aware observers in the future, branching off that point in the timeline.

The Youngness Problem is not a subtle and single effect. It biases even the observer toward more complexity, if you condition on existing at a late time compared to local Big Bang. Since intelligence is associated with more complexity, you can justify how the observer becomes more intelligent and gain the super powers through other means.

That nobody did the same before, no one have seen a super hero, is just evidence of The Youngness Problem! Even on a meta level, when the protagonist knows that he or she is part of universe with this effect, means one could view it as a Godel sentence, an event that can not be proved from earlier events because it is self referential. This increases the complexity, and justifies why the protagonist lives now instead of at an earlier time.

Two super heroes or more can exist because they can cover a larger area of space-time. Since you can not travel faster than light, the universe must produce enough super heroes to cover the space where self-aware observers live. This is a prediction about what a such fictional universe will look like when people colonize new planets.

I would not be ashamed to put my name on this law:

Sven Nilsen’s law of super heroes:

Wherever people go, super heroes will be!

Counter and counter-counter arguments

A counter argument to why this works might be that causality predicts that future observations does not depend on previous events: Any future state can be predicted equally well in principle by making accurate observations about the current state. Therefore, a person should not suddenly develop super powers just because it would lead to more observations in the future. When asking a person navigating a labyrinth which path was taken, it is the shortest up to that point, but if you continue to track the same person, the expected future route will be random.

A counter-counter argument to this is that if you do not know which person you ask, there are many people who would take the same shortest route, so when applying the same question over time in a symmetric way, they always take the shortest path, as long as the only thing you know about them is that they passed the same points. If you only measure people moving from point A, then B, then C, then they would likely take the shortest path.

This is precisely what happens in quantum mechanics: You can not tell the difference between one electron and another, only that it took a certain path. So when you ask the electron which way it goes, it answers “both” if there is no way you could tell the difference.

So the punch line that smashes every physical explanation that this could not happen, is that you say the same things happens for people, but conditioning on that self-aware observers must exist in decoherent branches. It is the super position of the branches, not individual states in people, who makes it possible to ask the same question at a later point and get the same answer.

You live in a part of the universe where many people share the same ancestor Everett branch. There are plenty of people and ways they could survive in the future. This is the most likely answer you will get in future as well, although the nature of self-aware experience might change.

I have to admit that a mathematical proof for a quantum mechanical universe is far beyond my current abilities, so I leave this to cosmologists when they have sorted out what happened between start of cosmic inflation up to the standard theory of Big Bang. For now I am mostly interested in how this could be used as justification for a story that is not entirely scientific implausible.

Another counter argument, one that is computationally intractable, is that we would expect to see “shortcuts” in our evolutionary history. Picture our history as a computer program producing humans, and the effect of The Youngess Problem is a compression algorithm attempting to shorten down the program to a minimum size in time. One would expect a compressed history to contain sudden shortcuts that leads to implausible highly complex observers given their time to evolve.

The counter-counter argument is that probabilities of these events can only be found, unless there are some mathematical proofs, by building an accurate simulation of evolution and run it forward many times, something that currently is not feasible on a large scale. If The Youngness Problem is real, then we would expect to see this by running enough computer simuations. You would also need to account for parallel Everett branches in the simulation, which makes it even harder.


There is a possible way, in principle, to justify how super heroes appear in a fictional universe, if that universe is loosely based on physical laws. My motivation is not to work out a scientific theory, but to build a story where super heroes are common in a universe similar to ours.


Microstates counter and counter-counter argument

The counter argument of thermal equilibrium goes like this: There are more microstates in a universe where the average temperature is e.g. 10K instead of 2.7K (K = Kelvin). If the effect of the Youngness Problem was real, you would expect to see a higher average temperature because most pocket universes would be in that state.

For a fictional universe, you can just raise the average temperature to 10K. This would probably not have any visual effect. You can explain why it is not something like 100K by it would lead to a too high temperature in the early universe which would reduce the number of self-aware observers.