In a recent interview at the Code Conference in California, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk suggested we are living inside a computer simulation. On first hearing, this claim seems far-fetched. But could there be some substance to Musk’s thinking?
As founder of a number of high-profile companies, such as Tesla and Space X, Musk’s business interests lie firmly in leading technologies.
Key to his claim is that computer games have evolved rapidly over the past 40 years to the point that, inside the next few years, they will be fully immersive, with a computer-generated and controlled world seamlessly merged with the physical world. In other words, we are on the verge of experiencing augmented reality (AR) combined with artificial intelligence. The end result is that what is real and what is simulated could become indistinguishable from one another. In his own words:
If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.
So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.
The idea that humans live in a reality controlled by external bodies, whether computers or otherwise, has been around for a while. This has been a question explored by philosophers and even physicists over the centuries. The philosopher Nick Bostrom drew the same conclusion in 2003.
The similarities between the arguments put forward by Musk and Bostrom go further than proposing we are part of a larger computer simulation, though. Both consider the development of artificial intelligence (AI) to be a dangerous field of technology. According to Musk, the result of progress in AI research and development will be the end of civilisation. Bostrom takes a similar standpoint should appropriate risk assessment not be carried out on development projects.