An MIT professor has said he believes it's "more likely than not" that we are living in some kind of simulated universe, given that we ourselves are not far away from being capable of creating hyper-realistic simulations ourselves.
In an interview with Vox, computer scientist Rizwan Virk argued that the world might make more sense if we're living in a world of information rather than a physical world.
"There are lots of mysteries in physics that are better explained by the simulation hypothesis than by what would be a material hypothesis," he told Vox.
"I think there’s a very good chance we are, in fact, living in a simulation, though we can’t say that with 100 percent confidence. But there is plenty of evidence that points in that direction."
The idea that we're living in a computer simulation is not new, and has been the subject of science fiction and philosophical theories for years. In 2003 Nick Bostrom's paper "Are you living in a computer simulation?" captured the imagination of scientists and the public alike. In brief, the argument goes like this:
If humans survive and continue to develop technology, we'll reach a stage where our civilization has enormous computing power. With this power, it is likely that we would be capable of running a massive number of simulations of our ancestors, using just a tiny fraction of the computer power available to us.
Given that this is the case, Bostom suggests there are three possibilities for how the future will go, and one of them has to be true.
1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a stage where they are able to run these simulations is very close to zero.
This would mean that our world is real, but we'll likely get wiped out before we reach a point where we have this sort of computational power. A delightful thought.
2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero.
This, he suggests, would require society to have changed significantly by the time we are able to run simulations, where no individuals have the resources to run simulations, or else individuals are somehow banned from running the simulations, eg because of ethical concerns for the simulated people themselves.
3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.
If the other two aren't true, this means that the majority of people with our kinds of experience are actually simulated by advanced civilizations in the future, and only one real world where all the simulation is taking place. Therefore it is far more likely that we are in one of the simulations than the real world.
This provides a longer explanation for anyone interested.
It sounds like an idea far from the mainstream, but several people have come out in favor of the theory.
Elon Musk puts the odds of us not living in a simulated universe at one in a billion.
"The strongest argument for us being in a simulation, probably being in a simulation is the following: 40 years ago, we had pong, two rectangles, and a dot," Musk said last year.
"That is what games were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, augmented reality, if you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality."
Virk too believes that, based on his experience in computing, there will come a point where humans will be able to create a simulation so hyper-realistic that it would be indistinguishable from the reality you are observing right now. In his book The Simulation Hypothesis, he's laid out 10 stages humans would have to take before we get there.
"We’re at about stage five, which is around virtual reality and augmented reality. Stage six is about learning to render these things without us having to put on glasses, and the fact that 3D printers now can print 3D pixels of objects shows us that most objects can be broken down as information," he told Vox.
"My guess is within a few decades to 100 years from now, we will reach the simulation point."