Last year, I came across an article and video where Elon Musk proposed that we are living inside a simulation, “…that our odds this is base reality are one in billions,” an advanced form of technology where we are characters in an ever-manifesting role play, where our code base is written in atoms, molecules and DNA.
As a sci fi aficionado and a person who has researched, played, taught, and lived(!) in simulations and virtual worlds, I was intrigued by the simulation hypothesis, but initially responded to the claims, “No, definitely crazy talk.” Diving deeper into Elon’s and other arguments, the light bulb switched on, and I, too, was convinced the likelihood we are living in a simulation is very probable.
To understand this argument, you must first sustain your belief that technology equals machines or robots. “How can I be a simulated technology if I have blood, skin, veins?” To the pro-simulation believers, everything you see, touch, feel is a form of technology, all built on atoms as our base building blocks with DNA as our historical genetic code that evolves over time (this Quora post explains how living things are differentiated from non-living things, if molecules and the atoms they’re made of, are present in everything). Think of the advancing role of biotech over the centuries, from cultivation of plants and domestication of animals to Musk’s neural lace interface connecting our brain to AI, and the experimental geoengineering of weather. Humans seem predisposed to manipulate, control and reinvent their environment. The tools just keep getting more advanced.
Nick Bostrom (2003) began the argument by claiming at least one of the below is true:
- the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
- any posthuman population civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
- we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
The main problem I have with the first two of Bostrom’s arguments is that they assume a human-centric view, and imply it is our future selves running the simulation. Who says the creators of this simulation are human? Much like we have created science simulation games that allow us to tweak fantasy species or the environment to see what happens, humans on Earth may be the characters in another species’ advanced technology.
Pro Simulation Theory Arguments
- Technology is exponentially increasing, doubling in capacity, function and AI capability every year. Today we have highly interactive games, simulations and virtual worlds with over 1B user accounts around the world (KZero has the best data on growth in virtual worlds that I know). These simulations are becoming more immersive with the use of virtual reality, augmented reality, haptic devices, and brain interfaces. If we are only 15 years or so into commercial virtual worlds, and tech capability doubles annually, in 40 years we’ll be a trillion times more advanced than we are today. Technology will be creating itself, humans will need interfaces to keep up. Can you imagine a species 10,000 years or 100,000 years older than us? How have they advanced their technology?
- Universal laws appear mathematical, and as any computer programmer knows, games and simulations are built on laws of mathematics and logic. Ideas from information theory keep appearing in quantum physics. One very important concept is the observer effect, where reality or matter doesn’t exist until you measure it, and the instruments used to measure it can influence whether it will become a wave or particle.
- As human’s age, their use of virtual worlds and sims evolves. In 2012, I published this chart (data courtesy of KZero), showing how younger children prefer simulations around books, TV, media, then evolving into social interaction, role-play and games as pre-teens, and finally ending in content creation and mirror worlds as adults. This evolution is part of what makes me believe we are the self-aware technology creating the new technology (see the Singularity event below).
One of the more entertaining questions about us living in a simulation is what if there is a bug? Some have humorously proposed that the 2017 Oscars snafu and the unexpected election of President Trump are prime examples of something gone wrong in the simulation. Other futurists and a couple of tech billions are taking a more pro-active stance, and working to break us out of the simulation. And wasn’t this what we feared all along, the “robots” controlling their own destiny?
Con Simulation Theory Arguments
- Limited computing power – opponents argue that the computer processing power to run a global simulation that accounts for travel through the solar system and observation of the universe with universal laws doesn’t exist. Again, from my perspective, this is a current and limited human-centric view. We have billions of suns and black holes in the universe, capable of producing more energy than can be imagined by the human mind. We are, after all, powered on Earth, yes? And much like video games where the world emerges as it comes into your view, the observer effect in quantum mechanics does the same thing in real life. We see things as our technology advances and gives us the ability to see, and manifest, it.
- Humans are mostly interested in themselves. No higher species would want to simulate them. Again, humans already invented simulations that give fantasy characters the ability to evolve as you tweak a feature here or there, just to see what happens. What if the human race is this form of simulation on a much larger and more elaborate scale?
- Many humans live in poverty and extreme suffering. If the creator was ethical, why create such painful circumstances? These questions have always been asked about the creator of the universe, whether it is God, an advanced species or our future selves. The global eradication of poverty is a growing part of our human evolution, with philanthropists such as Bill Gates investing hundreds of millions of dollars for this purpose, and the United Nations progressively establishing goals and a sustainability agenda toward this end. Perhaps a necessary part of our evolution as a species isn’t to rely on the creator for the fix, but to use the tools at our disposal to fix it ourselves.
- The argument is a violation of Occam’s razor, if there are two explanations for any occurrence, the simpler one is usually better. I don’t know, I think the fact we are living in a simulation explains a hell of a lot 🙂
Is the Singularity Here?
The Technology Singularity is a an event in time where technology becomes self-aware and surpasses the capabilities of humans. AI expert predictions place this event somewhere about 2040. If we are indeed living in a simulation, and the technology (the people in it) are starting to become aware of it, and investing millions of dollars to “break out” of the simulation, then the singularity is indeed already here.
I was fascinated to learn that Ray Kurzweil, futurist, a major author on the singularity, and director of engineering at Google is buying up AI companies and technologies at a very large scale. He is working on building intelligent chatbots that digest your writing, and have customized interactions with you, as we sit in our homes now talking to Alexa, Google Home, and Siri.
Curious where we go from here given exponential technology advancement? Check out these prediction charts 5, 10, 20, 40 and even 50 years in the future.
Ultimately, does it matter if we are the base world or if we’re living in a simulation? On a daily basis, probably not. We continue on and work to stay present in the moment, enjoying the life, family, friends and work we have. To others, it opens doors of unexplored possibilities and new horizons beyond our wildest dreams.