Are We Characters In Some Advanced Civilization’s Video Game?

“There’s a one in billion chance we’re in base reality” according to Elon Musk

Elon Musk

Do you think we could be living in someone else’s video game?

CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors Elon Musk thinks we probably are.

Musk says that he believes we are probably characters in a video game of some advanced civilization.

“There’s a one in billion chance we’re in base reality,” Musk said at Recode’s annual Code Conference. (scroll down for video)

He explained that though we think we’re flesh-and-blood participants in a physical world, we are almost certainly computer-generated entities living inside such a video game.

So, in other words, it’s almost certain that we’re walking around in something remarkably similar to ‘The Matrix’, a computer-generated reality run by artificial intelligence, but we don’t even realise it.

Vox explains:

Here’s Musk’s argument in full:

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, 40 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 came in response to a question from journalist Josh Topolsky, who pressed Musk further. “The argument makes sense,” Topolsky said. “But what do you think?”

“There’s a one in billions chance we’re in base reality,” Musk replied. He continued:

Arguably we should hope that that’s true, because if civilization stops advancing, that may be due to some calamitous event that erases civilization. So maybe we should be hopeful this is a simulation, because otherwise we are going to create simulations indistinguishable from reality or civilization ceases to exist. We’re unlikely to go into some multimillion-year stasis.

In this answer, Musk is repeating one of my favorite thought experiments. It comes from philosopher Nick Bostrom’s aptly titled paper “Are You in a Computer Simulation?” You can read the whole thing here, but the core is more or less as Musk describes it:
One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations.

Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct).

Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race.

It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.

Therefore, 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.

The argument basically resolves down to three options, which Wikipedia summarizes thusly:

  1. “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
  2. “The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero,” or
  3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.”
    Musk is picking the third option here

Do you think our life is a simulation?