Software & Web Development

Rant: Elon Musk and why he shouldn't philosophise in public

Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX) recently stated that he believed we are probably living in a computer simulation, not base reality. He put the odds of us actually existing in the one true reality at billions to one.

Obviously insane, right? Working too hard, pressures of a high-profile lifestyle, dash of paranoia, not enough sleep, and so on. That's been the feedback so far and it's the only sensible response, isn't it?

Maybe not. Science opens our minds to the possible. In the case of the universe, that's a very large opening indeed. Musk's suggestion is hardly new: science fiction writers have been using similar ideas for decades, if not centuries. So have writers of factual science books. For example, I've just started reading The Mind Club (Wegner & Gray) in which the opening chapter states, “You might be the only mind in the whole world [...] the lone true thinker within a computer-generated matrix.”

As computing power and AI networks continue to grow exponentially, it's hard not to see a fully-simulated reality as at least a possible outcome. But if the universe that we see around us is really a computer simulation, how would we know? Presumably we've been coded not to notice, yet a computer program as complex as that is bound to have bugs. Maybe we can find them and use them to see if Musk is correct.

Using an in-game/in-life cheat, I skipped back in time 25 years, completed an astrophysics degree (barely), then time-skipped forward to the present day to finish writing this rant.

Hmm. The signs are certainly there if you know where to look. For example, approximately 90% of the mass in our universe is missing. We can see stars and galaxies move according to gravitational laws, but they behave as though there's a huge chunk of 'dark matter' out there, interacting via gravity but nothing else. Sounds like someone forgot to define a 'visibility' variable on the Friday afternoon, then fudged gravity on the Monday morning to compensate because they couldn't find the source of the error.

Things aren't much better at the other end of the scale. If we go quantum, we can 'entangle' two particles, such as photons, separate them by an extreme distance, fiddle with one and have the other one change instantly. By ‘instantly’ I mean faster than the speed of light. Which, of course, isn't possible because it breaks universal laws. Even Einstein thought this was spooky.

We can even entangle larger items such as small molecules, but not, say, tennis balls or goats. There's a difference that kicks in at a certain size. Nobody knows why. Maybe most of the universe was written in Java but the programmer decided to call an assembly language sub-routine for the quantum stuff? Much faster, but not so scalable.

I could go on, with the cosmological constant problem, the ratio of matter to anti-matter, glitches in the cosmic microwave background and the more pressing issue of my missing socks. In fact, not only does the universe not make sense, but the more we learn about it the less sense it seems ever likely to make.

Plenty of hypotheses have been put forward to explain some of the weird observations we make of our universe, but none of them ticks all the boxes. So by the standards of philosophy and cosmology, Musk's belief is no more weird than any other, and considerably less weird than some.

If he is correct, I'd say we're in Universe 1.0, or maybe even a late Release Candidate. This one has all the main features of a fully-functional universe, but it'll need extensive patching if it's going to last another 13 billion years without a major upgrade.

There's a serious point to be made here. Musk is planning a crewed space flight to Mars. He's also building and selling hundreds of thousands of high-performance electric cars. And, perhaps most terrifyingly, at some stage in the future he expects us to sit in high-powered sleds that will catapult us across major continents at speeds well in excess of 1,000km per hour.

That kind of project requires a lot of trust, because safety has to be paramount when you're launching humans around the landscape at splattable velocity. I'm not sure it should be entrusted to someone who believes we're all living in an episode of The Sims. If things go catastrophically wrong, it's not really enough to say, “Don't worry, just reload your saved game.”

So although I'm personally pleased that Musk is thinking such interesting philosophical thoughts, it might be best if he kept them to himself. And I hope his engineers have their feet firmly planted on the ground. This universe certainly feels real enough. Ultimately, that's all that matters to most of us.


Also read:

The story behind Rembrandt’s last, 3D-printed masterpiece


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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