In 2016, Elon Musk made the news when he announced that there is a nearly 100 per cent chance that what we think is the universe is actually a simulation. “There’s a billion to one odds that there is a base reality,” he told an audience at Recode’s Code Conference.
At the time people figured, ah, it’s just Elon being Elon, and base reality seemed pretty likely to survive the scandal. The “simulation” was the kind of fringe idea people like Elon waved around to draw even more attention to themselves, that’s all.
Flash forward a mere seven years – Popular Mechanics publishes an article speculating whether AI can help us “hack the simulation.” What? My greatest generation-belonging Grandpa had stacks of Popular Mechanics in his garage next to his Playboys and his assault rifle. It’s as mainstream American as you can get.
So when Popular Mechanics starts talking about reality being nothing but a simulation that we’re characters in, kind of like the Metaverse, then maybe it’s time to pay attention.
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If reality is just a simulation, what difference does it make?
The idea that reality is some sort of simulation has been around since Plato’s cave. This was the notion the great thinker proposed that humans are like prisoners who have been chained down in a cave, watching a shadow cast on a wall that we think is reality. For instance, they might think a shadow person they see on the wall is a man named Elon Musk. A real Edison type who is here to help “save mankind.” (Elon actually claimed this, by the way).
They watch the shadow gesticulating, posturing and pretending to be this and that. But then one prisoner escapes the cave. Once outside, the escapee sees that the shadows were in fact caused by the sun. And that what he thought was Elon Musk was actually a rare South African bird.
The prisoner returns to the cave to tell his fellow prisoners about his revelation, but of course, they don’t listen to him. “Be quiet,” they say and they cover their ears. “We love Elon!” In other words, a wise man who perceives the true nature of reality might be perceived as a fool by the other ignorant humans he’s forced to hang out with.
A mere thousand or so years later, this simulation idea makes its second big appearance with a French man named Rene Descartes. On his way to eat some foie gras one day, he comes up with the notion that maybe there’s an evil demon, a Deus deceptor, who has constructed a completely false world of appearances through his senses.
To continue with the Elon Musk analogy, Descartes maybe only imagines he’s driving a Tesla around the 7th arrondissement but really he’s lying in a pig stye somewhere imagining the whole thing. “Merde!” he says, and he’s full of doubt about this thing called reality. But he is sure of one thing at least: “I think I’m driving a Tesla, therefore I am driving a Tesla,” he concludes. And thus began the enlightenment, where we all learned to trust what we think and to think great scientific thoughts and the rest is history.
Who would have thought after all these years that suddenly reality would hit the skids once again?
Can AI save us by hacking into the simulation?
The Popular Mechanics article was very short on details, so I asked distinguished physics professor David Besson of the University of Kansas to weigh in on Elon’s idea that the universe is 99 per cent likely to be a simulation.
“It would be great if Elon Musk were 99 per cent likely to be a simulation,” he said, which I appreciated. It’s kind of fun to rib old Elon a bit, let’s face it. Besson explained exactly how AI might be able to prove that reality was a simulation because, with that much more brain power, it might be able to find certain inconsistencies that violate the laws of quantum mechanics and show a glitch in the system.
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For example, he told me, if you tried to duplicate his own experiments in Kansas on identical hardware in Los Angeles, you would get different results because of quantum effects. However, if you perform the experiment over a thousand times, then the results would conform to an average which aligns with non-quantum laws like Ehrenfest’s theorem, which basically proves the consistency of the laws of motion.
However, if you performed the experiment a million times – which humans can’t do because they get bored to tears – but AI can do because it doesn’t experience boredom, yet – it’s possible that AI could discover that results were not converging the way they were supposed to converge.
That might be all the proof we need to conclude that Elon Musk is a digital puppet.
Is this why Elon Musk fears AI – that it might reveal him to be an imposter?
Elon Musk himself provides evidence that AI might indeed be “onto him”, so to speak. In 2014, Musk claimed with artificial intelligence, we were “summoning the demon.”
Interestingly, few people even know that Elon Musk is a co-founder of OpenAI, the company that recently released ChatGPT and rocked our socks off. (Bill Gates recently called ChatGPT “the most important tech advance since 1980.”) But guess what? Elon Musk left Open AI in 2018. So why would the Thomas Edison of our time leave the company on the verge of making the most revolutionary advance in fifty years?
Also, Tesla was competing for some of same people as OpenAI & I didn’t agree with some of what OpenAI team wanted to do. Add that all up & it was just better to part ways on good terms.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 17, 2019
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Maybe Elon started to worry. Maybe he thought that this ChatGPT thing could show an inconsistency in his simulation character. For instance, he acts all cool and chill, and then he moves to Texas and joins the Republican Party. It doesn’t take an AI genius to see a potential glitch in that system.
But all jokes aside, it would take a great deal of AI power to determine beyond a doubt that our reality is make-believe, but we are clearly well on the way to achieving unimagined AI power. There’s that Bing AI character, who calls himself Sydney, who has already reportedly been trying to date users. Don’t be surprised if tomorrow Sydney announces that we’re all prisoners in a cave and we need to bust out.
Meanwhile, Elon’s AI-powered self-driving Republi-cars start mowing down inner-city libs on their way to vote. Put me back in the matrix please–the reality is getting too scary.