elon musk

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At Recode’s Code Conference, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk gave his own two cents on why our existence could be in fact a simulation on some advanced civilization’s supercomputers.

“The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had pong. Like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.

Now, forty years later, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. 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?”

This whole thought experiment might catch a lot of people off guard. Actually, it’s easy to immediately dismiss Musk’s argument as lunacy, but truth be told the idea of the universe being a computer simulation is a serious scientific hypothesis, although it resembles the plot of “The Matrix”. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive when he spoke at  the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate in April.

“I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said. Tyson then likened the experience of being in the presence of an advanced species on the same footing with the difference between humans and chimpanzees. “We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said. “If that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.”

The most famous paper that discusses a simulated existence was published by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003. Bostrum suggested that an advanced civilization might one day decide to simulate the existence of their ancestors. After many iterations, there would be more artificial existences than biological ones. Essentially Bostrum argues that at least one of the following there propositions is true:

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(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;

(2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);

(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.

Suffice to say that the hypothesis is untestable and, in a way, it mirrors the argument for God’s existence. We might never know for sure. Not until we’re advanced enough to simulate a person’s existence. If and when that moment comes, everything we assumed about reality and the universe will be shattered.

Check out the rest of Musk’s hour-long interview below. Topics include Tesla Motors’ plans for 2018 onward, the prospects of re-usable rockets, how SpaceX wants to land a man on Mars by 2025, or how Apple having second thoughts about an Apple car was a missed opportunity.