When you’re lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling and dreading the next day at work, you’ve probably had the thought, “are we living in a computer simulation?” If you've had that existential dread inducing thought, you’re in good company. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and Space X, thinks we live in a computer simulation. The idea that humanity exists in a holographic version of itself is an intriguing philosophical concept, but much like the Fermi paradox, it’s nearly impossible to prove. Why does Elon Musk think we live in a simulation? Shouldn't he of all people be hoping against hope that the world we live in is very real?
Despite what science fiction has told us, the simulation in which Musk believes we inhabit doesn’t give people the ability to perform superhuman feats, and it’s (probably) not being run by evil robots who are using our bodies as batteries. Rather, the simulation is a complex recreation of what humanity used to be, and we’re being studied as ancient history. Musk isn’t alone in believing that the world is inside of a super computer, but for every person who agrees with Musk, there are just as many theoretical physicists and philosophers who think he’s wrong. What follows is an in-depth look at what it means to live in a simulation and whether or not it’s possible to live inside an algorithm created by a super computer.
The linchpin of Musk's theory is the augmented reality technology that's been edging its way into video games and a hodgepodge of passive entertainment for the last few years. He believes that at some point in the near future this technology is going to improve until it's fully immersive, meaning that people won't be able to tell the difference between a simulation and reality. At the Code Conference in California in 2016, Musk told his audience, "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."
It may seem odd for a futurist like Elon Musk to reference a game as dated as Pong as an example for why we're living in a hologram, but to the tech billionaire it makes perfect sense. He said: "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…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."
Musk is essentially referring to a simplified version of Moore's Law, which states that all technological change occurs at an exponential rate, and that up until recently, computer processor speed was doubling every 18 months. Silicon Valley is attempting to speed up this exponential growth because of the way that our relationship to technology is changing, which does give Musk's theory that we're going to create a computer so powerful that it can create a livable world some merit.
While Musk may have received the bulk of the press in 2016 when he made his claim about the hologram world, there have been philosophers, scientists, and big thinkers before him who have come to this conclusion. 17th-century philosopher René Descartes referred to the hologram world as the "evil genius." He philosophized that "the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity."
More recently, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom hypothesized that humans are either living in a computer simulation being run by advanced "posthumans" or that we're not actually in a computer simulation and that humans will die out before we get a chance to reach this "posthuman" state.
Also see: The Matrix.
Humans have been trying to understand how the brain works since we first realized that there was a brain. In 2015 Henry Markram developed the Human Brain Project, a $1.3 billion plan to build a computer model of the brain. There's still a long way to go to mapping a human brain, but it's believed that once that door is opened, it won't be long before we're able to simulate a fully functioning brain with thoughts and feelings of its own. Rich Terrile, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, believes that once scientists have the building blocks to humanity, "there will be nothing technical standing in the way to making machines that have their own consciousness."