Down the rabbit hole we go

Sci-fi classic 'The Matrix' presented a dystopian vision of the future - a quarter of a century later and that future isn't as outlandish as it once seemed.

As even casual pop-culture fans know, The Matrix is set in a distant future where machines have gained sentience and conquered humanity. Humans are stored in vats and used as batteries (the machines feed off their bioelectric and thermal energy). To keep humans dormant and placid, their consciousness is inserted into ‘The Matrix’ a simulation engineered by the machines – a virtual reality mirroring life on earth in 1999.

At the time, the films buzz was largely due to its groundbreaking special effects, gravity-defying stunts and cyber-punk aesthetic. Its sticking power is largely due to its core techno-philosophical question that has become the staple of every stoner conversation: Are we living in a simulation?

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus (The Matrix)

This question has a name: the simulation hypothesisProposed by the philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003, the concept suggests that our reality might actually be a computer simulation created by a highly advanced civilisation.

  1. Advanced Technology: Bostrom suggests that if a technologically advanced civilisation exists with the capability to run incredibly complex simulations, they might create simulated universes for various reasons, such as entertainment, research, or even to understand their own history.
  2. Many Simulations: If such a civilisation exists and has the ability to create simulations, they might create many of them, possibly even more simulations than there are real, “base” realities.
  3. Simulation Realism: Bostrom argues that if these simulations are realistic enough, the inhabitants within them (like us) would not be able to distinguish between their simulated reality and a “real” one. To them, their world would seem just as real as ours seems to us.
  4. Implications: If we accept Bostrom’s hypothesis as a possibility, it raises profound questions about the nature of reality and our place within it. It also suggests that our understanding of the universe might be limited, as we could just be characters in someone else’s simulation.

In short, the closer technology gets to being able to build a fully interactive simulation like the Matrix, the greater the possibility that someone has built such a world and that we’re living inside it.

Further, if you assume that a “technologically mature” civilisation can easily create a simulated world, then logic suggests that said civilisation should be able to to create multiple worlds, each with a multitude of simulated characters.

With these simulated worlds far outnumbering our “real” world, perhaps into the billions, the likelihood that we are in a simulation would be significantly higher than not. It was this logic that prompted Elon Musk to suggest, a few years ago, that ‘there is a one in a billion chance that our world is a base reality’. A more recent study suggests chances are a more like 50/50.

It’s a theory that is difficult to prove — but difficult to disprove as well. Bear in mind that an AI-generated world would be indistinguishable from our physical world. Either this ‘reality’ is being streamed directly into your brain, or we are simply AI-generated characters living inside the simulation.

Decades later and the simulation hypothesis is starting to be taken a lot more seriously by technologists and scientists. This is largely due to recent technological advancements in artificial intelligence, brain computer interfaces, computer graphics, processing power and augmented reality / virtual reality.

Consider the progress from just this year:

  • Apple released their highly anticipated Vision Pro headset – a mixed reality device that is a huge leap for spatial computing and the merging of digital and physical worlds. 
  • OpenAI unveiled Sora AI, a generative AI that can create realistic and imaginative scenes from text instruction that is virtually indistinguishable from real captured footage. 
  • Neuralink successfully implanted their first chip into a human brain. As a result, Noland Arbaugh, a 29 year old quadriplegic can now transmit data wirelessly and move a computer cursor using just the power of his mind.
  • Epic Games dropped Unreal Engine 5.2, their most advanced real-time 3D creation engine that can generate nearly photo-realistic procedurally generated gaming environments. 
  • Nvidia announced their Blackwell GPU – the worlds most powerful chip will power the next generation of AI – it represents a 1000x increase of compute power compared to chips produced 8 years ago. 

Individually these technologies represent stunning achievements, collectively they suggest the simulation point, a sort of singularity when AI-generated virtual reality becomes indistinguishable from physical reality, is imminent.

Even if you discount the notion that we are already part of a simulation – there’s plenty to suggest we’re heading in that direction. Many of us are already servants of social media, which has profound implications for how we perceive the world.

This digital bubble, driven by algorithms and personalisation, acts as an echo chamber where our beliefs and opinions are constantly reinforced, our perspective is never challenged and alternative viewpoints are virtually non-existent. Consequently we view the world not as it is, but as we wish it to be.

While companies like Meta are busy building the metaverse. Over half the internet is already AI generated content. Millions of us chat regularly with AI characters, form relationships with avatars, socialise in virtual worlds and grew up on multiplayer online games like Fortnite and Roblox.

Whether we like it or not, much of our world is filtered through the prism of digital platforms. What we know, what we watch, what we learn, how we live, how we socialise – all of these modern human experiences are already influenced by algorithms that direct us in subtle but serious ways. As Philip K. Dick, the seminal sci-fi author put it, all the way back in 1977, “We are living in a computer programmed reality.”

Till next month.