"There's a billion to one chance we're living in base reality," Elon Musk said in an interview at Code Conference. Long story short, he thinks we're living in a Matrix-style simulation. As in we're all brains in vats plugged into a supercomputer. Or sims living in a video game. Sound crazy? Want to hear more of this madness? Then get on board the train to crazy town. We've done some digging for you, only—spoiler alert—it's not as crazy as it all sounds.
Elon Musk has said a lot of bonkers things in his life. As founder of SpaceX, CEO of electric car company Tesla, and co-founder and chairman of Solar City, he's either the man most likely to save the world from its addiction to fossil fuels, or the man who will send humanity to Mars. Or maybe both. He conceptualized Hyperloop—a form of transport where train cars are shot out of a giant railgun. And did we mention he wants to colonize Mars? Plans are already underway with SpaceX to send people there in 2024. And get this: in Mars, he will be king. Well okay, that last statement was just a joke by Elon Musk (he thinks Mars will be a direct democracy), but he totally went there. The point is, this guy eats crazy and impossible for breakfast, and recently, he said in an interview that he believes we're all living in a simulation. You know, like the Matrix.
We've seen it before in the movies. Our hero wakes up in some sort of simulation of reality, and the audience gasps. What a total mind-fuck! There's Vanilla Sky, Inception, Total Recall, Ghost In The Shell, The Truman Show, the list goes on and on. The difference is that Elon Musk is talking about our reality, the one where you and I live and breathe—or think we do.
The surprising thing is, Elon Musk isn't that crazy. The idea that we're living in a simulation is not new—Descartes came to similar conclusions when he doubted reality in the 17th century. What’s more, a number of philosophers, futurists, and thought leaders have already been to this part of crazy town and worked out the finer points. Elon Musk proved knowledgeable on the topic, saying that he had thought about it "a lot," and "It got to the point where every conversation was the AI/simulation conversation, and my brother and I agreed that we would ban such conversations if we were ever in a hot tub."
Now try to remove the image of Elon Musk in a speedo in a hot tub for a moment, and allow us to introduce you to the work of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom... (You're still thinking about the hot tub, aren't you?)
Nick Bostrom worked on something he called the Simulation Argument. To avoid death by nosebleed allow us to simplify it. It goes something like this...
At least one of these statements is true:
1) We are living in what Elon Musk called "base reality." Think of it as Earth 1. And here on D'Original Earth we don't have the technology to create a simulation. We never will.
2) We are living in a universe where any civilization is unlikely (unwilling or uninterested) to run a simulation of reality. Because they are party poopers.
3) We are living in a simulation. Gasp!
There's even some math to it, which looks like this:
Don't worry, we don't understand it either. All you need to know is that the factor named N1 is the number of simulations that exist, or basically technology. And as we have more and more simulations/technology, N1 becomes larger and larger. Since we're unsure whether we live in a simulation or base reality, when N1 gets larger, it becomes more certain that we are living in a simulation.
Elon Musk explained this all much better than we just did. He pointed out that technology has advanced something like video games from Pong to virtual reality Batman in just 40 years. Imagine what we can do in 100 years, or 1,000. So it's only a matter of time until we're creating simulations that are indistinguishable from reality. And if we can create a simulation that looks just like reality, who's to say that we aren't already living in a simulation? That's the argument, in a nutshell.
Crazy not crazy
Still with us? Good. Because the implications are staggering. If one day, we succeed in creating a simulation of the universe, then our creations could probably do the same, and we'd have some serious Inception insanity going on—a simulation within a simulation within a simulation. And what would this tell us about God? In The Truman Show fashion, would he be the benevolent genius who loved us? Or would he just be some dude playing The Sims and eating donuts while dressed only in his tighty whities? And would our sims have consciousness? Souls? A reason to live?
Or what if we are in base reality? Then some disaster is awaiting the human race to stop it from advancing and creating anything more high tech than the Oculus Rift and exploding Galaxy Note7's. Once again, Elon Musk summed it up best. "Either we're going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, or civilization will cease to exist." Now you’re talking crazy again, Elon. But we like how you think.