A recent story in The New Yorker about Y Combinator venture capitalist Sam Altman made waves last week, but not for the reasons you'd think.
Towards the end of the piece, the author mentions that "many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis." What in the world is the simulation hypothesis, you ask? It's a theory that posits that everything we know as reality is actually a giant computer simulation created by a higher intelligence.
Bear with me. I'm not making this up.
Who are the prominent voices in the argument for the simulation hypothesis? Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is one.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is another.
"I've had so many simulation discussions it's crazy," Musk said at a technology event held in California, earlier this year.
The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation, I think, is the following: Forty years ago we had Pong--two rectangles and a dot. That is what games were.
Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.
Musk followed the natural progression of his reasoning, that it's inevitable that such games eventually become ubiquitous, numbering into "the billions."
"It would seem to follow that the odds that we're in base reality is one in billions."
The Flaw in Simulation Hypothesis
According to that New Yorker article, "two [unnamed] tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation."
I think this is what happens when people make more money than they know what to do with.
But just for kicks, let's break this down for a minute. Taken from a purely scientific point of view, simulation hypothesis is deeply flawed.
The form of the theory Musk presents hangs on the assumption that computer games (or simulations) and reality will eventually become indistinguishable from one another.
That's a pretty big assumption, considering where technology has gotten us so far.
Just a few examples:
War: Technologically advanced weapons have steadily made killing more efficient. In World War II alone between 60 and 80 million people died. (Over 150,000 people in Japan were killed instantly by the two atomic bombs alone, not counting those who died from radiation and aftermath.)
Environment: Evidence collected by 2,500 scientists in over 130 countries indicates that humans are responsible for most (if not all) of the phenomenon we refer to as global warming. If major trends are not reversed, this warming of the planet could eventually lead to vast increases in natural disasters, hundreds of thousands of species going instinct, and much, much more.
Communication: Tech has made it possible to communicate, almost instantaneously, with people all over the world. But for all of its advantages, that communication has created a world of social media where individuals spew hateful (and threatening) comments at people they've never met, simply for holding a different opinion. Terrorists use social media to recruit, radicalize, and even raise money.
Health: Despite major advances in medicine, greed often keeps legal drugs out of the hands of those who need them the most. And that's in the most developed countries; if you happened to be born on the wrong continent your chances of survival of even the most treatable diseases are much, much lower.
And isn't it ironic that San Francisco, home to so many of the brilliant minds that are continually pushing tech forward, has one of the largest homeless populations in the U.S.?
Although technology has certainly increased the quality of life for many, in many ways it has driven civilization backwards. Taken at face value, it could be argued that the chances are greater that humans destroy ourselves--whether through nuclear holocaust, global warming, or some other man-made disaster--long before we ever reached the echelon of computing that Musk envisions.
For those who think this argument isn't enough to disprove the simulation hypothesis, that's not my goal. It simply shows the other side, and illustrates that this version of the theory is entirely based on faulty assumptions. Oxford defines a hypothesis as "a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation."
The truth is, there's no valid foundation for this hypothesis to stand on.
Why It's So Dangerous
Beyond all of this, simulation hypothesis (in all its forms, not just Musk's interpretation) is dangerous for one simple reason:
It removes responsibility.
If the reality we know is simply a simulation with some type of reset button, what difference do our choices really make?
I find many of Mr. Musk's initiatives valuable, and I appreciate his desire to make our world a better one.
But rather than debate the reality of our existence, maybe we should start focusing more on our own motivations, our actions, and the resulting consequences, both current and future.
And before wasting any more time, let's call out the simulation hypothesis for what it truly is: glorified science fiction.