Disclaimer: I am a fan of Elon Musk. I like what I know of him personally. I admire his courage and vision (open-source Tesla technology!). And I have no doubt that his IQ is close to twice what I've got under the hood. But all that just makes his recent comments about how we're all probably living in a simulation all the more strikingly absurd.
Here's his "strongest argument" (which Musk says has been honed by many hours of hot-tub conversation in recent months:
The strongest argument for us being in a simulation probably is the following. Forty years ago we had Pong. Like, two rectangles and a dot. That was 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. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.
If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the 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. Tell me what's wrong with that argument.
Here are a couple of major flaws in that argument:
You cannot arbitrarily choose a segment of a trend and extend it into the future. The progression from Pong to World of Warcraft may be impressive, but there's no reason to assume, as Musk does, that the rate will continue as it has in the past decade. That's not how reality functions (or even simulated reality). To take an example with which Mr. Musk is deeply familiar, space exploration went from virtually nothing to landing men on the moon in the decade between the early 60s and the early 70s. A Muskian projection made in 1973 would have confidently assumed we'd be in Alpha Centauri by now, given that rate of progress. If real-estate prices had continued to climb at the rate of a decade ago, we'd all be millionaires by now! My 14 year-old cousin has grown about a foot taller in the past six months. Would Musk have us believe my cousin will be 100 feet tall by the time he gets out of college?
Video games are still just video games. Despite the progress from Pong to whatever the kids are playing these days, they're still looking at a screen, making images appear to move around in imaginary space. To my knowledge, there's been very little advancement in engaging the other senses, unless we're going to count very recent gizmos like the Oculus Rift, which mainly engaged my sense of nausea when I took it for a spin. No jasmine scent, no breezes in our hair, no silk through our fingers. It's still just light and sound. Hardly anything approaching a world.
I hate to throw cold water into Mr. Musk's hot tub, but let's get real. Of course, we may be living in a simulation, but if this is the strongest argument an acknowledged genius like Musk can come up with, I think it's time for a reboot.