Science fiction’s many realities: Elon Musk, Simulated Reality and why there may be no spoon

Gautham Shenoy August 12, 2016 9 min


“God said, ‘Cancel Program GENESIS.’ The universe ceased to exist.”

This very very short story was written by Arthur C. Clarke about 10 years ago for Wired. So much implied in so little. What if this story were true? Because that would then make God, or shall we say the ‘creator’, a programmer. Which makes everything – our world and our lives – merely pieces of information; simulations in one massive program. If you think that sounds preposterous, one person you can be sure would disagree with you is Elon Musk.

Elon Musk, the man who wants to take humanity to Mars, co-founder of Tesla Motors, CEO/CTO of Space X, co-chairman of OpenAI, science fiction reader and someone who knows what he’s talking about, said recently at Code Conference, “There’s a one in billions chance we’re in base reality.” In other words, Elon Musk thinks there’s just a ‘one in billions’ chance that we’re not living in a computer simulation right now. Or to put it another way, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and foremost technologists says that it’s more likely than not that we’re just characters living inside a simulation. In other words, I am needlessly labouring the point. Our perception of perception may be wrong. Our reality may not, in fact, be real.

Elon Musk (extreme right) with Walt Mossberg & Kara Swisher at Code Conference 2016. Screenshot from Youtube video segment of the conference titled ‘Is Life a Video Game?’

So here’s what he said, after noting how in just four short decades, we’ve gone from Pong – which was two rectangles and a dot – to games today that are photorealistic 3D simulations, “If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale. So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.” Still sounds preposterous? Read on.

When Elon Musk speaks, everyone takes notice. So naturally this statement created a stir, grabbing internet headlines. But as any avid movie watcher or a reader of science fiction will know, it’s not really a new idea. And definitely not unfamiliar for people interested in philosophy and the nature of reality.

Elon Musk based his argument on the work of the well-regarded Swedish philosopher and professor at Oxford, Nick Bostrum, who in 2003 put forth the Simulation Argument. To oversimplify, it posits that there is a probability that a post-human civilization, i.e our technologically advanced descendants, could be running ‘ancestor simulations’ and that is most likely what we are living in now.

Nick Bostrum, seen here in a screen grab from the Youtube video where he details out his Simulation Argument, holds master’s degrees in philosophy and physics, and computational neuroscience.

But the idea that we humans live in a reality controlled by external bodies, whether computers or otherwise, has been around for quite a while, way before Nick Bostrum’s Simulation Argument. Look no further than the Matrix, released in 1999. Heavily influenced by the Indian philosophical concept of Maya, usually translated as ‘illusion’ or ‘unreality’, The Matrix showed us a whole civilization of people living inside a simulation. Once scorned by European thinkers as proof of India’s incapability to cope with the practicalities of the ‘real’ world, over the years, the concept of Maya has influenced countless philosophers, authors and artists. ‘The World as Maya’ makes even more sense when you recontextualize our existence as nothing more than being inside a simulation; existing within what we can call ‘Simulated Reality’, distinct from the other realities that populate the world of science fiction.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are no longer science fiction, they’re science fact, and one hopes, as science fiction has shown us, the latter will only get more and more immersive with each passing year till we’re at a stage where virtual reality is indistinguishable from Elon Musk’s ‘base reality’.

Simulated Reality goes beyond just Constructed Reality (think The Truman Show). Simulated Reality is more than just fully-immersive Virtual Reality (in that, with VR, the person is aware of ‘jacking into’ a virtual world, like in the two-hour long Daft Punk music video, Tron: Legacy). Augmented Reality is well, Pokémon Go.

What about Chistopher Nolan’s Inception? Isn’t dreaming a form of simulated reality? Yes, the dream hypothesis cannot be ruled out, for dreams are indistinguishable from ‘reality’ when we are asleep. But when do you know you are dreaming and if you are awake? This is what the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou wondered a couple of thousand years before Inception: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around the sky, conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly. And then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” Did the top stop spinning at the end of Inception? As Edgar Allan Poe pondered, “Is all that we see or seem; But a dream within a dream?”

Is there really no spoon?

Spoon Boy tells Neo there is no spoon.

How certain are we that the world around us — as we perceive it — both exists and is real? There is nothing in our highly subjective experiences that can validate our belief that we are living in ‘base reality’. And we may never know because Simulated Reality is where the whole of ‘reality’ is simulated; where people in an entire society, city or civilization are not aware that they are living inside a simulation, are simulations themselves or just characters in a game. Unless something drastic happens, like meeting Morpheus who offers you a red pill or a blue pill. Or as Bostrum himself suggests, a window pops up saying, “You are living in a simulation. Click here for more information.”

For all you know, the end of the world could end not with a bang or in flames, but as banally as a screen with a blinking text that reads, ‘Game Over’.  

One argument made against the existence of Simulated Reality is what is known as the resource argument, or the lack of sufficient computing power. But, if there a planet-sized Death Star is plausible, surely a planet-sized computer dedicated to running complex simulations with all of its trillions of interactions may sound like science fiction now, but like many other things could be science fact soon, relatively speaking. As Elon Musk pointed out, it may take say 10,000 years, but that’s hardly a nanosecond on the evolutionary clock.

So can we ever figure out what the true world is — that which Elon Musk calls ‘base reality’? Simple answer, no. It’s not strictly a falsifiable theory. The existence of simulated reality is unprovable in any concrete sense: any “evidence” that is directly observed could be another simulation itself. Borrowing from Bostrum, even if we are in a simulated reality, there is no way to be sure that the beings running the simulation are not themselves a simulation, and the operators of that simulation are themselves not a simulation. As Musk tweeted this week, “Maybe reality is just a series of nested simulations all the way down.”

Borrowing from Bostrum, even if we are in a simulated reality, there is no way to be sure that the beings running the simulation are not themselves a simulation, and the operators of that simulation are themselves not a simulation. As Musk tweeted this week, “Maybe reality is just a series of nested simulations all the way down.”

Simulated Reality has been a recurring theme in science fiction for ages, and there are some excellent novels from Philip K. Dick (of course!), Stanislaw Lem, Iain M. Banks and Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few authors, compiling a list of which would run into many a page scroll. And there are quite a few films as well, apart from The Matrix. Here are three that I would highly recommend so you can get a further taste of how Simulated Reality could play out: Dark City (1998), in which strange alien beings secretly run a dark world in which each person’s reality changes every night. Keep an ear out for the awesome soundtrack, especially the covers of The Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Sway by Anita Kelsey. eXistenZ (1999), set in a world where virtual reality is truly immersive – you plug in with bio-ports that looks like umbilical cords – and when you’re hooked up, you can’t tell the game from reality, not even if you designed the game. And The Thirteenth Floor (1999), a reasonably faithful adaptation of novelist Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3, where a man living in the 1990s must clear himself of a murder charge by entering a simulation of Los Angeles, filled with simulated humans unaware they are just programs (this one has a good twist!).

Do buy the DVDs or Blu-Rays. Remember piracy is bad, so please don’t rob ships.


Before I sign off, a couple of things. First, the announcement of the winner of the NWW05: Earth Abides contest. Winning a copy of the Science Fiction Masterworks edition of Earth Abides, for his details of a very practical approach to priorities in ensuring civilization continues, is Daniel Guerrero from Dallas, Texas.

I’m sure George Stewart would also have approved of your mention of libraries. Congratulations Daniel! Do send us your mailing address and we’ll make sure your copy reaches you. Happy reading!

Lastly, I’d like to ask all of you to share your opinion about us not being in ‘base reality’.

Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Until next week then. Live long, prosper and may the Force be with you!

Update: This post was updated at 4.30 pm on August 12 with the ‘There is no spoon’ gif 


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.