Explained: Why Elon Musk Believes we Live in a Giant Video Game

Earlier this month, intergalactic entrepreneur Elon Musk let us in on his philosophical worldview, and it is entirely appropriate for the man who is turning science fiction into fact. At Re/code’s annual Code Conference, Musk told interviewers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher that we are probably living in a computer simulation run by a far more advanced civilization.

Musk, the founder of companies such as PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, invoked the rapid improvements in video games to explain himself. “The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following,” said Musk. “Forty years ago we had pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.” (Musk should know, he was making them.)

He extrapolates, saying 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.”

Elon Musk explaining his views on living in a simulation at Code Conference

Though the question whether reality is just a dream has been asked by humans since time immemorial, Musk’s perspective is drawn from the musings of Oxford University philosophy professor Nick Bostrom. Specifically, it is one of three possible existential conditions Bostrom proposes in his 2003 paper, Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?

Bostrom’s trilemma essentially argues that at some point in a likely distant future, a post-human civilization will have mammoth amounts of computing power and programming skills, and would be able to create “ancestor simulations”. As Bostrom explains, “these would be detailed simulations of the simulator’s predecessors – detailed enough for the simulated minds to be conscious and have the same kinds of experiences we have.”

Given the scale of computing power, Bostrom also suggests that “they would be able to implement billions of simulations, each containing as many people as have ever existed,” reducing the chances that you are one of the real people to very close to zero.

Given this, Bostrom writes that at least one of these statements must be true:

  1. Almost all civilizations at our level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature.
  2. The fraction of technologically mature civilizations that are interested in creating ancestor simulations is almost zero.
  3. You are almost certainly living in a simulation.

speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 3, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom

So which is it? If (1) is true, we will go extinct before we achieve this level of computational power. As Bostrom writes, “let us hope that is not the case.”

If (2) is true, Bostrom suggests that essentially all advanced civilizations will have no interest in running simulations.

If (3) is true, then congratulations, there are advanced civilizations and you are almost guaranteed to be in one of their simulations.

Understanding all this makes it clear that Musk, given his predisposition towards improving humanity through technology, has no choice but to select the third statement. He is optimistic that we will colonize Mars, so expecting our eventual self-inflicted destruction would be contradictory. He pushes the bounds of scientific and computational capabilities, so saying that he thinks we will not push the capabilities of technology rules out the second statement.

Explaining why he adheres to the third option, Musk confirms this, saying that “if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea.”

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