During his most recent interview with Recode, Elon Musk was asked by an audience member if he believed this universe is a simulation—that is, if a more technologically advanced civilization than our own possibly achieved the ability to simulate universes, and then generated this one. His answer, shown below, was essentially that “there is a one in billions chance that this is base reality.” He added that in the future, “either we’re going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, or civilization will cease to exist.”
The sequence of the idea is that some hyper-intelligent civilization came before us, then created our universe, and we, in turn, are destined—thanks to the trajectory of technological innovation—to create other simulated universes of our own (once we have the knowhow and the computing power). Like a Russian nesting doll of universes, one inside of another, inside of another, ad infinitum.
Musk isn’t alone in giving decent odds to the idea that our reality is a simulation either. Nick Bostrom for example, a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford, and author of the book Superintelligence, has laid out a decent argument—shown in essence below—for the possibility that we’re in a simulated universe, as well as the possibility that we will in turn make our own universes.
This begs the question: if we either “create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, or… cease to exist,” then what kinds of simulations—what kinds of universes—are we going to make? That is to say, what will happen when we become gods?
In some sense, we already are. Our earliest ersatz universes are, of course, video games.
Musk talks about how far video games have come in terms of graphics, gameplay, and connectivity since the Pong days, and anybody who’s even dabbled in PC games or the most popular consoles over the decades is aware of how far that is. In four decades, gaming went from two lines and a square to this:
Perhaps the most talked-about recent sign post on our (intrinsic?) journey toward creating new universes is No Man’s Sky, the game that allows players to explore seemingly endless worlds and creature types—more species have been discovered in NMS than on Earth. Despite any issues people may have with the game—that’s another conversation—it’s a clear attempt at creating a universe that is, for all intents and purposes, infinite.
On top of games like No Man’s Sky, we’re also now watching virtual reality step out of its infancy, and it’s already doing a pretty good job of fooling humans in regards to what is real and what is virtual, a further testament to the idea that we’ll probably be able to duplicate this reality.
So if we extrapolate out how much video games can advance (in terms of everything from graphics to AI to sensorial inputs) over 10 or 100 or even 1,000 years, it becomes at least not absurd to think that we’ll be able to—one day—make universes indistinguishable from our own.
But then the question becomes: what rules will we give it? If we create universes that contain conscious beings, how are we possibly going to decide how to treat them?
Keeping this in mind, it’s interesting to look at our most primitive universes, our video games, and note that our first attempts at fully fledged worlds often involve an incredible amount of violence. This observation isn’t an ethical comment on video games—on the contrary, violent video games are often some of the most fun—it’s just interesting to note that as we begin to create worlds in a crucible of algorithms and electrons, we seem to favor the ones that at least let us blow something up or hack at something with an axe.
Another way of thinking about this is that we prefer video games—primitive universes—that have a lot of conflict. This makes sense because conflict is entertaining—imagine any video game, or any story for that matter, without it. Boring would be an understatement; unnecessary would be apt.
But could the violence continue if we knew that the characters in the game—the universe—were conscious and could feel pain like we feel pain? As universe creators, would we exchange violence for placidity to keep our little creations calm, or would we select for conflict, and the possibility of loss of limb or life in particular, in order to make the universe more exciting—to raise the stakes and give their lives impermanence? Would we give the characters in the universe an ultimate objective, which, once obtained, meant the end of his or her “game”? Would we adjust their height and weight and skin color and intelligence and sex and beauty before they were even born just to see how they dealt with the random hand we gave them?
The list of profound questions is endless, but if Musk is right, we’re going to have to answer them at some point in the future.
In the meantime, we can watch how our video games develop, keeping in the back of our minds the idea that these are possibly the forebears to universes we will create that will have conscious life in them. We can also keep this concept and these questions in mind when we examine our own universe. If we really are in a simulation, if this universe really was created by a hyper-intelligent civilization that came before us, is it possible that they gave it more than just physical laws? Is it possible that abstract concepts such as morality, justice, love, hate, luck, beauty, etc. are somehow programmed into this universe the same way 2+2=4 or Newton’s laws of motion are?
Regardless of the answers, the questions are interesting. We’ll probably want to give the universes we create a lot of those.
Speaking of questions: What do you think a universe created by humanity may look like? And what rules would you give it? Let us know how you would behave as Creator of the Universe in the comments below!
Images: Hello Games/No Man’s Sky, Projekt RED/The Witcher