When the film The Matrix was released in 1999, its central premise, that the world is not what it seems to be, appeared to reprise the ancient Indian concept of maya, or illusion. As Morpheus says to Neo in the film:
“What is real? If you are talking about your senses, what you feel, taste, smell or see, then all you’re talking about is electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
He then proceeds to reveal to Neo the truth – that the human race has been condemned by “the Machines” to live out their lives in an artificial simulation called the Matrix, which they readily accept to be the real world.
As a result of its various references to Hindu philosophy, the film, understandably, caused a special frisson of interest in India. In fact, The Matrix is not alone in its assertions: the idea that the world, as we know it, is merely a computer-generated, Matrix-like illusion is a fairly common theme in science fiction, and various academics – philosophers, physicists, mathematicians and theologists – have been exploring this idea over the years.
But now, none other than Elon Musk, the billionaire Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Tesla and Space X, has spoken out strongly in support of this concept.
At a technology conference in San Francisco recently Musk startled the world by saying he believed that the odds are overwhelming that we are living inside a computer simulation. In other words, we could just be virtual playthings inside a cosmic computer game created by some species of Super-beings. In fact, the odds are only "one in billions", Musk concluded, that we are in "base reality".
And that is something of great significance. After all, it’s one thing for a philosopher, physicist, mathematician (or any other academic theorist) to play with abstract concepts like illusion versus reality – that’s what they do for a living. However, when a hard-headed pragmatist like Elon Musk, who is immersed in the world of technology, sticks his neck out on the subject, it’s time to shut up and pay attention.
But first, a quick flashback. Four years after The Matrix. in 2003, Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom suggested the possibility that members of an advanced “post-human” civilisation with enormous computing power might run simulations on how their remote ancestors lived. And he arrived at a hypothesis that hinged on a “trilemma”, or the assertion that one of three propositions is almost certainly true:
- The fraction of human-level civilisations that reach a post-human stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is close to zero
- The fraction of post-human civilisations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is close to zero
- The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is close to one
Bostrom reasoned that if the third proposition is true, and that almost all people with our kind of experiences live in simulations, then we ourselves are almost certainly living in a simulation. (Not necessarily easy to follow, but that’s the way it sometimes is with philosophy.)
But how do we prove it?
Presenting a hypothesis is one thing, but trying to actually prove it is a different matter.
John Barrow, a mathematics professor at Cambridge, attempted to do that, suggesting that if our world was indeed a simulation, it would, as it degraded, begin to display glitches (just as any computer would). Therefore, Barrow said, we need to carefully monitor aspects of nature that are supposed to be constant – like the speed of light, for example, or the strength of the electromagnetic force – and if we ever spot them drifting from those constant values, that might be proof that we are indeed inside a simulation. This test would perhaps be the equivalent of the ‘little Red Pill’ that Morpheus gave to Neo in The Matrix to allow him to see that the real world was different from the illusion he had inhabited all his life.
Silas Beane, a University of Washington physicist, went on to propose a different proof for the simulation hypothesis. It went like this: physicists tell us that space is a smooth continuum that extends infinitely. But if someone were to create a simulation of space it would necessarily have to be done by using a lattice-like structure. Beane tells us that the spacing of such a lattice structure would impose a limit on the energy that particles could have. So if our cosmos is merely a simulation, we would see a cut-off in the spectrum of high-energy particles. Moreover, if space is continuous (as they tell us), cosmic rays should come to us from all directions equally. But in a simulation, because of the lattice structure, the cosmic rays would travel along the axes of the lattice, so they would not come to us from all directions equally. And that is something we could measure.
All these theories and proofs came, of course, with their own assumptions and caveats. Beane’s theory, for example, makes the assumption that the beings who created a simulation would follow the same methods as we do. But why should we assume that an advanced "post-human" civilisation would create a simulation the way we would do it, using a lattice? Why shouldn’t they create a simulation that is perfectly smooth instead, like space itself?
Indistinguishable from reality
Elon Musk’s reasoning, however, is much simpler and more down-to-earth. Pragmatist – and technologist – that he is, he avoided overly abstract theorising.
Instead, he pointed out how 40 years ago, computer games such as Pong were played using just two rectangles and a dot. "That was what games were."
But now, 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing games simultaneously – and it’s getting more sophisticated every year.
Soon computer games will embrace such things as virtual reality and augmented reality. And before long they will become completely indistinguishable from reality itself – even if we assume that their rate of advancement drops drastically from what it is now – which it probably won’t, he pointed out.
That is what we can reasonably foresee.
OK, so now let us fast forward 10,000 years into the future – which, of course, is just a blink on the evolutionary scale. Can you imagine what computer games will be like then?
Given this mind-boggling sophistication of computer games, combined with the fact that those games will be played on literally billions of computers, Musk concluded, it is only logical to assume that that “the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions”.
Technology vs Theory
This is perhaps the simplest, yet most convincing, response to the question of whether we are living inside a simulation or not – especially as it comes from someone who is not a theoretician, but a hard-core technology guy, obsessed by the subject of Artificial Intelligence.
The obvious question is, so is the creator of our simulation “God”?
Well, it may be. Or it may be your great-great-great-great-great-grandson. Or it may be just some pimply teenage hacker living in a slightly more advanced galaxy across the road. We really don’t know.
The other question is, what does all this mean to us?
So what if we are just lines of code in some great cosmic realty show? Some of us would, like Neo, want to pop a metaphorical “Red Pill” to discover what the actual Reality is. Most others would, perhaps, be too insufficiently evolved, too complacent, or just too fearful, and would therefore prefer to continue to live in our comfortable Illusion, and so we’d choose the "Blue Pill" instead.
(After all, in The Matrix the character named Cypher finds he can’t handle the Reality he has discovered, and chooses to go back instead to the illusory comfort of the Matrix.)
So Red Pill or Blue Pill?
It’s not unlike the choice that Lord Krishna offers to Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita.
But, actually, there is perhaps a third choice, which has always fascinated somebody un-evolved and coarse like myself: What if I could somehow locate the control panel of our simulation, sneak in, change my own personal settings, and become the kind of person “who has everything”. Someone like George Clooney, perhaps. Or Haruki Murakami. Or Roger Federer. Or Anthony Bourdain.
Or, come to think of it, someone like Elon Musk himself.