In a recent interview for Axios on HBO, Tesla CEO Elon Musk — who sits near the top of my evolving “favorite fascinating people who might say something amazing or bonkers tomorrow” list — discussed everything from artificial intelligence to inserting chips in human brains to merging people with machines. Near the end, he also unleashed a wildly dramatic line that’s become a bit of a Muskian classic.
“After a string of mind-stretchers,” Axios reports, Musk threw out the suggestion that we might all be living in a simulation. “Are you joking?” asked the incredulous Axios team, who apparently never had witnessed an interview with Elon Musk until that very moment. “You’re joking, right?”
He wasn’t joking. Living in a simulation is one of Musk’s favorite topics, so much so that he once declared he had banned himself from speaking about it in hot tubs. “There’s a billion-to-one chance we’re living in base reality,” he told Recode’s Code Conference in June of 2016. “I think most likely — this is just about probability — there are many, many simulations,” he added on a smoke-and-whiskey-filled Joe Rogan Experience podcast in September. “You might as well call them reality, or you could call them multiverse.”
Is your mind blown? My mind’s blown! Before we delve into whether or not we are living in The Matrix, however — and if we are, I forecast that a whole lot of people will eventually call shenanigans on doing things like, say, paying their taxes — I would like to give credit where credit is due.
Just this fall, on a visit to Northern California, my entire family was convinced for about 15 glorious evening minutes that we had seen a UFO. We witnessed dramatic and shifting lights in the sky, paired with a morphing nebula-like cloud. Two-thirds of my children were immediately terrified, asking me to roll up the windows so they would not get abducted by aliens! (This was an absurd and outrageous request, by the way. How can one take helpful pre-alien-abduction smartphone photos through car windows that are closed?)
Our spooky California light show was no UFO, of course; it was the launch of a SpaceX rocket from Los Angeles. This came courtesy of one Elon Musk, to whom I owe a hearty thank-you for a briefly exhilarating and hilarious experience. Well, unless we actually are all living in a simulation, that is. In that case, I owe the thanks to some random space alien named A1-X58 who observes the artificial lives of humanity through some wildly sophisticated computer game and chortles heartily every time I do something like trip over my own shoes or attempt to vigorously shake up a yogurt smoothie when I’ve already removed the cap.
With that, let’s go back to the topic at hand: Could we really be living in a simulation? I’ll be the first to admit that things certainly seem a touch shady and over-the-top these days. Moreover, Musk isn’t the only person suggesting that our lives may not be our own. In October, NBC News ran a long rundown of the hypothesis, which gained an early boost from a University of Oxford philosopher, Nick Bostrom, in 2003.
“If there are long-lived technological civilizations in the universe,” NBC summarized, “and if they run computer simulations, there must be a huge number of simulated realities complete with artificial-intelligence inhabitants who may have no idea they’re living inside a game — inhabitants like us, perhaps.” If this prospect alarms you, never fear: “We might be in a simulation, or a simulation in a simulation, but at least we can be pretty sure that it’s not simulations all the way down.”
Oh, okay. What a relief! This all fine and good, I guess, and also totally weird, but here’s an even crazier idea: What if we don’t need crafty aliens to turn our lives into a simulation? What if we’re doing it ourselves?
Take today’s increasingly frenetic news cycle, which can nicely serve as our Exhibit A. Look closely — there will be an alarming cacophony, but don’t turn away! — and you’ll notice that said news cycle increasingly translates into a series of breathless dispatches about how someone said something dumb on the Internet. These dispatches are inevitably followed up by additional frenzied dispatches exploring the countless ways one could be offended by the dumb thing that was said on the Internet, followed by a studious and humorless and highly offended backlash to those complaints, only to be followed by someone else responding by saying something new and dumb on the Internet, forever and ever, amen.
In short, much of the hubbub is balderdash.
Or witness a recent profile in The Economist’s lifestyle and culture magazine, “Meet Alexa: Inside the Mind of a Digital Native.” The piece does not cover Amazon’s Alexa — that Alexa is probably helpfully spying on you at this very moment, at least if you have the misfortune of hosting her in your house. This Alexa is a young twentysomething woman in the U.K. who increasingly shapes her actual life around carefully structured digital simulacrums of her own existence, cheerily and obsessively broadcast on Instagram. “I would be so much more comfortable in everyday life if these things didn’t exist, and yet they are my existence,” Alexa notes, referring to ever-present cameras and smartphones. “You know? I have to plan my whole life round it.”
One doesn’t have to do anything of the sort, of course, but so it goes: That’s life in the self-made simulation, and it doesn’t sound like much fun.
For his part, Christian writer C.S. Lewis offered his own thoughts on belonging to another realm, decades before iPhones were even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye. “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy,” Lewis wrote, “the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” He was referring to the afterlife, of course, and not alien-driven computer networks. In a world filled with fevered hypotheses surrounding the meaning of life and reality itself, it’s a proposition that’s worth some thought.