Today I wrote about Moore’s Law, the concept that the processing power of computers doubles every two years as transistors get smaller and computers cheaper at the same time. It’s interesting to think about where this could take us in another 50 or 250 years. At some point, the amount of available processing power becomes so enormous that it will be possible to simulate very complex systems.
Compare video games from the late 1970s and early 1980s to the games people can now play on a PS5. For example, when I was a kid in 1982, this was considered an amazing F1 racing simulation:
Now compare that with the latest version of similar games. This clip really shows how the 2020 edition of this F1 game compares to the new 2021 edition coming out this month. In that year alone, the improvements in the sound and the appearance of wet tracks are quite remarkable.
Clearly, we have come a long way in 39 years in our ability to simulate reality. So again, what happens if you project that same skill 100 years into the future? It is not difficult to imagine that at some point we will be able to simulate things to such an extent that our senses cannot really tell the difference.
And that brings us to the idea of simulation. In essence, this begs the question: How do we know that what we consider to be the real world is not just a simulation that is being run on a highly advanced computer by some future version of humanity? This is something Elon Musk was asked about recently and he said he actually thinks it is more likely than not. [emphasis added]
Last week, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and other cutting-edge companies, answered a surprising question at the Code Conference, a technology event in California. What, asked a man in the audience, did Musk do with the idea that we do not live in the real world, but in an elaborate computer simulation? Musk showed surprising familiarity with this concept. “I’ve had so many discussions about simulation that it’s crazy,” Musk said. Citing the speed with which video games are improving, he suggested that the development of simulations “indistinguishable from reality” was inevitable. The probability that we are living in a “basic reality”, he concluded, was only “one in billions.”
Musk, it seems, has been persuaded by what philosophers call the “simulation argument,” an idea given its final form in a 2003 article by Oxford philosopher and futurologist Nick Bostrom. (Raffi Khatchadourian described Bostrom for this magazine last year.) The simulation argument begins by noting several current trends in technology, such as the development of virtual reality and the mapping of the human brain. (One such mapping effort, the Brain Initiative, has been funded by the Obama Administration.) The argument ends by proposing that we are, in fact, digital beings living in a large computer simulation created by our descendants from the far future. Many people have imagined this scenario over the years, of course, usually while. But recently, various philosophers, futurists, science fiction writers, and technologists (people who share an almost religious faith in technological progress) have come to believe that the argument from simulation is not only plausible, but inescapable.
There is really nothing new in this idea. Anyone who has seen The Matrix (which came out 22 years ago) is familiar with the general idea that the reality we perceive is not reality. And long before that movie came out, there were other movies and books that were considering it. What’s different now is that some of the people who embrace the idea aren’t just sci-fi nerds, but people who get paid to ponder such things and industry leading figures like Elon Musk.
And yet I did highlight that line above because I also wonder if the popularity of simulation as a concept it has nothing to do with the popularity of certain drugs that have recently become de facto legal across the country. Maybe we are not living in a simulation, maybe we are just living in a world where many people have an unprecedented amount of free time to participate in the discussion of the nature of reality in college dorms, some of which are accompanied of smoking. large amounts of psychotropic drugs.
I’m being a bit of a joker but just a little bit. There may be some interesting reasons to consider the possibility that the world is a simulation. As the New Yorker story suggests, it can even be an interesting way for atheists to talk about spiritual concepts. But it is also possible that this is all very real, and that the people popularizing the idea of simulation are just recreationally modifying their brain chemistry too often.