By Joshua Kalenga
If you ever find yourself in a hot tub with Elon Musk, do not bring up simulation theory. At a forum in 2016, the popular technology entrepreneur said, “I’ve had so many simulation discussions, it’s crazy … it got to the point where basically every conversation was the AI/simulation conversation, and my brother and I finally agreed that we would ban such conversations if we were ever in the hot tub … it’s not the sexiest conversation.”
However, ironically, many credit Musk with making discussions about simulation theory sexy again. The Tesla co-founder has famously argued that the incredible rate of improvement in video game technology suggests that, at some point in the future, humanity will be able to create fully life-like simulations.
“Forty years ago, we had Pong, two rectangles and a dot … now, forty years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then [at some point] the games will become indistinguishable from reality,” Musk said at Code Conference in 2016.
Musk’s argument thus follows: since computers, of which there are billions, would eventually be able to simulate life-like games, the chance that we are living in the base reality is one in billions. In other words, you, the people you love, the place you call home, and every single emotion you have ever felt are probably the product of a simulation being run by a more advanced civilization.
While many associate simulation theory with Musk, it is worth noting that he was not the first to discuss the idea. In fact, in 2003, when we were still plugging our 8MB memory cards into our PlayStation 2s, Nick Bostrom published a paper entitled, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”
In his paper, Bostrom — a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford — essentially argued that “the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.” Put differently, Bostrom argues that if you accept the belief that we will eventually be able to run life-like simulations, then it follows that we are likely already living in one such simulation.
What would it mean if someone proved, with certainty, that we are indeed living in a simulation? “If the simulation hypothesis is valid, then we open the door to eternal life and resurrection,” James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, said. “The reason is quite simple: if we’re programs in the computer, then as long as I have a computer that’s not damaged, I can always rerun the program.”
Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has a more casual take on the possibility of simulation theory being true. He advises people to “go out and do really interesting things so the simulators don’t shut you down.”
We may very well be living in a simulation, but does that make any of our ambitions, desires, pleasures, or frustrations any less real? Personally, while I am fascinated by simulation theory, I reckon that, whether or not it’s true, I will still have to stumble out of bed for class tomorrow. And no, not even the idea that I’m only as “real” as a character from the “The Sims” could ever stop me from loving my family.
Some skeptics reject simulation theory, regarding it as pseudoscience. Sabine Hossenfelder from the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany said, “I’m not saying it’s impossible. But I want to see some backup for this claim.” Others may simply be uncomfortable with the implications of simulation theory being true.
People in either of the two camps may very well be comforted by a recent study by theoretical physicists from Oxford University. The study, led by Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhi, argued that there are not enough particles in the known universe that could sustain the computing power necessary for a simulation of such scale.
It would be interesting to hear Musk respond to this study. Perhaps, he might argue, humanity simply hasn’t yet found an efficient enough way of computing that would support such a complex simulation, but we will eventually. Still, I can imagine Hossenfelder and other skeptics screaming in response, “Show us the proof!”
While there is no consensus on simulation theory, it is clearly a fascinating topic to discuss. If you do ever find yourself in that hot tub with Elon Musk, you might be tempted to bring it up. Sure, if you want to transform the hot tub ambience from casual to existential crisis-esque, then go ahead. Otherwise, stay quiet and thank whomever programmed this game for letting you meet one of the great innovators of our time.