I was having an outstanding game of chess when it occurred to me that perhaps things weren’t as they seemed. All of my high-value pieces were still on the board, I castled at just the right moment, and my middle-game defense was impregnable. It was in this moment that I contemplated whether I was in fact the one being played. Not in the metaphorical sense, but rather the very literal one.
As with most great ideas, this one was fleeting, until later that night while staring into the idiot box with a remote controller in my hand. Here, the idea formalized into something far more ominous. In a rare moment of clarity, for the first time, I understood the very real possibility that life as we (humans) know it, might be nothing more than a simulation—a game of sorts, controlled by a higher species. This is hardly a novel idea. Computer nerds have been toting the concept of an artificial world since long before “The Matrix.” More recently, the notion that we’re merely pawns inside a simulation gained notable publicity with an endorsement by the prodigal tech-genius, Elon Musk:
“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, let’s just imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale….There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality”
In this context, the term “base reality” refers to absolute reality. To put it bluntly, Musk overwhelmingly favors the possibility that human existence is a simulated event—synthetic and virtual. To understand the rationale, one must first accept that higher-intelligence is not unique to the human species. As evidence, look no further than Silicon Valley. Advancements in artificial intelligence, driverless cars, humanoid-robots, neural-networks, etc., are challenging what we once thought only humans were capable of. The intellectual gap between man and machine is ever-rising with no end in sight. This provides the logical foundation on which we can accept the plausibility of a simulated world.
Taken one step further, in a biological direction, consider the genetic difference between humans and apes. Today, we approximate this number to be roughly 5%. Now consider the behavioral and intellectual differences between the two species. If you had to quantify it, that number would certainly exceed 5%. Now consider a species 5% different from us (genetically) in the upward direction. What would that species look like? What would they think of us? Logic tells us that this new species would see humans the same way humans perceive apes. If that’s not humbling, consider that the chances of this species actually existing is not unlikely, given the size and scope of the universe.
Yet the question remains. If we do in fact live in a simulated world, is there a way to break it? After a cursory evaluation, the only answers I find are unsatisfying.
The obvious first step is acknowledging that a simulation exists. Imagine a domesticated animal gaining self-awareness for the first time—realizing that despite free-will they live as pets. Now imagine the owner’s response. We must assume that the creators of our simulation would react in a similar manner. Unfortunately, we must also assume that the simulators are infinitely capable, as evidenced by the complexity of the simulation itself. Therefore, the most likely response would be advancement of the simulation to compensate for our new-found awareness. It seems highly unlikely that merely acknowledging the existence of a simulation would allow us to break it.
The easiest approach to breaking simulated events would be the Truman Method. That is, reacting unpredictably to highly predictable scenarios. This approach was best demonstrated in Andrew Niccol’s “The Truman Show.” In it, Truman Burbank escapes his synthetic world through a series of irregular behaviors, ultimately thumbing his nose at Big Brother. And while this approach is certainly the easiest to understand, it is only effective under very primitive circumstances. It’s safe to assume that the simulation we live in cannot be broken by random actions. Alternatively, our understanding of what defines a “truly random action” may be misinformed. In our hands, the hardest part of the Truman Method, would be identifying a behavior irregular-enough to break the simulation.
Perhaps the only satisfying response to a simulated world is to become a simulator yourself. Controlling your own artificial world, using pawns that you’ve created, whose actions are fully-programmed. Modern video games are the closest thing we have to this realization. And while the characters of these simulations pale in comparison to ourselves, it may just be a matter of perspective.