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Silicon Valley meets Plato

Visionary inventor and businessman Elon Musk is bathing in a hot tub at one of his Bel Air mansions. His brother Kimbal joins him. They start chatting about a subject they’re both obsessed with, but this time the conversation is not about landing on Mars with SpaceX or new ways in which Tesla Motors can change the car industry. No, it’s about something even more ambitious.

“Forty years ago, we had Pong,” says Elon. “Two rectangles and a dot. That was the whole video game. Now we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the game will soon become indistinguishable from reality.”
“Are you saying that we might already live in a video game built by some advanced civilization without even knowing it?” asks Kimbal.
“That’s what I want to find out.”
The two brothers look at each other for a second and then decide to ban this kind of conversation while chilling in the tub.

This could easily be a sketch from Saturday Night Live making fun of eccentric Silicon Valley billionaires, but in fact it’s more or less what really happened to Elon Musk and his brother, as told by Musk himself during the 2016 Code Conference. The CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX really believes that our reality might be a computer simulation. He even gave a numerical prediction that day: “There’s a one-in-billions chance that this is base reality,” he said to the amusement and surprise of the audience.
So, are we really living in some sort of sophisticated video game? And if that’s the case, is there some way we can prove it, and eventually break out of the simulation? Musk made this theory mainstream after his unexpected statements last year, but as bizarre as it may seem, what he was briefly explaining is something that philosophers and scientists have been taking very seriously over the past few decades.

Throughout history, we’ve always been somehow sceptical about the deep, inner nature of reality; ideas similar to Musk’s date back to the French philosopher René Descartes or even Plato in ancient Greece, with echoes to be found in our pop culture, sci-fi novels and movies such as The Matrix. But the most recent expression of the simulation argument, as it’s now called – the one Musk seems to be so fascinated with – was defined only in 2003, in a paper written by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford, called Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?

No one is sure if we will ever find a scientific definition of consciousness, but – as Bostrom points out – many neuroscientists believe that it’s only a matter of time before we will somehow be able to explain the processes that lead to it. And if there is nothing truly inexplicable or mysterious about how consciousness is built in our brain, we just need to study that organ’s complex architecture better. Once we’re there, and with no technical barriers standing in the way, we will eventually be able to reproduce consciousness, simulating neurons, neurotransmitters and synapses.

With this premise in mind, Bostrom suggests that an advanced civilization could have already decided to run millions of simulations of their ancestors, just as we might be able to do in the future. Millions of simulations that could be run by a single computer: in this scenario, the majority of minds and brains in the universe would be artificial. So, as basic statistics show, it is more likely that we are already living inside one of those simulations.

For some time confined to an obscure and neglected academic paper, the simulation argument recently became a source of inspiration for discussion and new studies among scientists, philosophers and futurologists. Not without controversy.

Many researchers remain hesitant about Bostrom’s “landmark” paper. There are cognitive scientists who believe that no amount of computational power, no matter how great, could ever lead to a simulated conscious experience; philosophers, meanwhile, argue that even talking about the possibility of doing so is conceptually wrong. 

More practically, physicists are trying to find evidence; if our universe is some sort of program, there have to be flaws, glitches and patterns that could reveal at least a tiny part of its structure. Theoretical physicists are trying to look deeper and deeper into quantum chromodynamics (the theory that describes the interactions between quarks) and supergravity (one of many theories that are still struggling to describe gravity in the quantum realm). Unfortunately, no scientific evidence has been found yet, nor do we seem anywhere near any new discovery.

Nevertheless, the simulation argument is so fascinating – somehow mystical and contagious – that it’s becoming popular outside of the academic community. That leads, of course, to countless misinterpretations of the original argument. Last year, Bank of America quoted Nick Bostrom in an investment brochure about virtual reality, quickly mentioning that we may already live in a virtual, simulated universe – as if it were common knowledge and unlikely to cause alarm: “[There is a] 20-50 per cent probability we are already living in a simulated virtual world,” it stated, implying that customers should invest their money in virtual reality straightaway.

But how can someone like Elon Musk – an engineer and inventor, a visionary, perhaps, but a businessman nonetheless, bound to choose how to spend his money and time wisely – be so passionate about the simulation argument, given its highly speculative nature and lack of scientific evidence? Apparently, he is far from alone. 

“Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis,” wrote Tad Friend in a profile of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sam Altman in the New Yorker last year. Even following Musk’s Code Conference interview, media coverage of the tech elite’s growing enthusiasm for the simulation argument has remained relatively low key. Even so there are moves afoot behind closed doors, as Friend reveals: “Two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.” 

It’s not unusual to see larger-than-life ideas and utopian views of society being hyped in Silicon Valley. Take plans to build a human settlement on Mars, for example, or the self-driving cars that might eventually disrupt the layout of our streets and cities, or the more achievable but still highly controversial Universal Basic Income (UBI). It’s an idea that, for several reasons, political parties on both left and right embraced some time ago – and that has lately become one of the central themes of the “Silicon Valley ideology”. Tech companies want to build our future, not just our electronic devices. They are eager to shape our society in accordance with their ideas. In this regard, trying to demonstrate the simulation argument might be just another attempt in the same direction. 

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