ByRob Harris, writer at
Sometimes I play video games.
Rob Harris

Have you ever suspected that your life was just part one big video game? Tech-minded visionary Elon Musk has. In fact, according to recent statements he made at 2016's Code Conference, the CEO of SpaceX thinks that it's highly, highly likely we're all part of some other civilization's simulation. So, all existence as we understand it is actually just some unknowable alien's play-thing. Cool.

Of course, this proposition is little more than an abstract philosophical quandary; one we'll likely never know the answer to. But let's examine the logic behind it and you can make your own mind up. It all starts, interestingly enough, with video gaming's Adam: Pong.

The origin of digital species

As Elon Musk argues:

"Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was 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."

So far, so good. It's true that graphics have advanced at a breakneck pace. Just take a look at 2006's Gears of War next to 1993's Doom:

But how do we get from rendering Marcus Fenix's bulging biceps to an entire human race?

"Soon we'll have virtual reality, augmented reality. 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."
"So given that we're clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we're in base reality is one in billions. Tell me what's wrong with that argument. Is there a flaw in that argument?"

Here's one. Whilst Musk rightly points towards rapid advancements in graphical technology, he fails to consider the gargantuan improvements in AI that would be required to script, I don't have a decent answer, but perhaps Swedish philosopher and superintelligence expert Nick Bostrom does.

Bostrom's Trilemma

Back in 2003, Bostrom proposed a trilemma called 'the simulation argument,' which suggests that one of the three following propositions must be true:

  • "The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero", or
  • "The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero", or
  • "The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one"

If the third statement is true then we're all just avatars trapped within some future version of The Sims.

There are even schools of thought that suggest our simulated reality could come to an anti-climactic end if, for some reason, we prove to be insufferable nuisances to whatever post-human super race is overseeing us. For example, if we begin creating advanced, power-intensive simulations, our own simulation will in turn become too resource-intensive to sustain. That, presumably, is when the world goes dark.

Economist Robin Hanson has urged any self-preserving sim to be as entertaining as possible so as to avoid being 'shut off.' But a sim's very self-awareness could pose a threat to productivity, if you haven't given up all hope already:

"Your motivation to save for retirement, or to help the poor in Ethiopia, might be muted by realizing that in your simulation, you will never retire and there is no Ethiopia."

My brain is hurting, so I'll leave the philosophical pondering there. Besides, if this is all a video game, I've got to go find that extra life.

You can watch Elon Musk lay out his theory below.

Do you believe we're living in a simulated reality?

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