Are we living in the Matrix? Elon Musk says the chance is high – as is a future with Skynet

Our lives are almost certainly being conducted within a simulated world powered by AI and computers. That’s according to entrepreneur Elon Musk at a recent conference.

The Matrix simulation hypothesis is nothing new. It was first proposed in 2003 by one Nick Bostrom, who suggested that if many advanced civilisations existed, and if they could create simulations of the universe, then we were likely to be living in one. NASA even thought Bostrom could be right.

At the time, Rich Terrile, director of the Centre for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “The fastest NASA supercomputers are cranking away at double the speed of the human brain. If you make a simple calculation using Moore’s Law [estimating that computers double in power every two years], you’ll find that these supercomputers will gain the ability to compute an entire human lifetime of 80 years – including every thought ever conceived during that lifetime – in one month.

“In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they’re being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we’re living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.”

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If you trust Musk, the chances of us not being in a simulation are insignificantly small. He suggested the strongest argument for us being in a simulation was the following: 40 years ago we had Pong – “Like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were.” Don’t worry though, that’s not the end of his explanation. He added: “Now we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality and augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then games will become indistinguishable from reality.”

Even if the speed of those advancements dropped by 1,000, he said, we would still be moving forward at an intense speed relative to the age of life. So “it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in ‘base reality’ is one in billions”.

Musk further claimed we should hope that it’s true or the world will end. Either we will make simulations that we can’t tell apart from the real world, “or civilisation will cease to exist. Those are the two options”.

Musk also used his time on stage to explain his decision to set up an Open AI non-profit. It seems that AI could become a threat far sooner than we expected – “the risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year time frame. Some ten years at most.”

He added that “the pace of progress in AI is incredibly fast” and that leading AI companies “recognise the danger” and are working to control “bad” superintelligences “from escaping into the Internet.”

As such, he wanted to avoid a future in which we’d all be demolished by a computer overlord. “I don’t know a lot of people who love the idea of living under a despot,” he said. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every AI product will bring us closer to the horrors of a Skynet future. “I’m really just trying to increase the probability that the future will be good,” Musk said. “If AI power is broadly distributed to the degree that we can link AI power to each individual’s will – you would have your AI agent, everybody would have their AI agent – then if somebody did try to something really terrible, then the collective will of others could overcome that bad actor.”

Elsewhere, author Justine Musk has shared some insight into what it takes to reach the level of success gained by entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Elon Musk after the question was posed on Quora. Of course, she would know given that she was Musk’s first wife.

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