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Wednesday
Jun082016

Thoughts on Elon Musk's confidence that we're living in a computer simulation

I heard Elon Musk confidently proclaim the odds were “billions to one” that we are not living in a computer simulation.

I’ve heard the simulation idea a lot of times and it makes sense. Basically boils down to the idea that, assuming future civilizations create simulations of worlds, then there are, in the long run, many more simulations than there are actual worlds. It does make sense mathematically if you assume simulations are equivalent to worlds in every way. But I don’t think that necessarily follows and I don’t see any reason to have such confidence in the odds being that astronomically in favor of us being in a simulation.

For one thing, it’s easy to imagine a world in which, no matter how complex and seemingly thoughtful an AI is created, it never actually achieves self-consciousness. It might go through all the motions and appearances of being self-aware but it is just a shell (i.e., a “philosophical AI zombie”). It might be indistinguishable from a human’s consciousness from the outside but there is no actual internal “point of view.”

Some people believe that the puzzle of consciousness is merely a matter of fairly linear coding ability. In other words, assemble a binary computer program with the right structure and sufficient complexity and you’ll be able to create a consciousness. This seems to be a common point of view, almost taken for granted.

But what if that’s not the case? What if there is something special and unknown about the physical world that lends itself to producing consciousness? Perhaps the quantum mysteriousness of matter is somehow related to consciousness. Perhaps the physical world, because it’s not purely binary or linear at heart, is able to create unique “strange loops,” involving near-infinite regressions that would be very hard to replicate using a completely linear/binary system.

I’m not saying I believe that this is the case, but my point is just that I don’t think it follows that because we can create complex programs right now that we’ll be able to replicate consciousness. Even if we were able to produce something that appeared to be conscious, we would never truly know for a fact that it was conscious like we are conscious.  

Another point: the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics is a widely believed idea amongst physicists. It is an explanation for quantum observations that posits that every possible event happens, and that the world one observes and inhabits is just one of a near-infinitude of possible worlds. You have to extend this idea further than just parallel worlds like ours to see the full impact of this. This would mean other universes with different laws of physics, universes where different forms of life evolved, universes where no life was possible at all, etc. (As crazy as this idea sounds to laypeople it is a respected theory because it explains so many mysterious results of quantum physics experiments.)

(The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics is actually just one form of various Many Worlds ideas: for example, the idea that space, being infinite, or time, being infinite, will result in many, many universes, perhaps unreachable to each other. I believe some type of Many Worlds theory is true just because of the sheer unlikelihood of existence and consciousness, which would require a near-infinite number of worlds where those unlikely physical laws could be randomly generated.)

If any of the Many Worlds ideas were true, one would have to compare the near-infinite (possibly infinite) number of real worlds with consciousness to the also near-infinite (possibly infinite) number of simulations with consciousness. Comparing sets of infinite numbers is not an easy concept mathematically. (To illustrate this, let’s say there is a binary quality of a universe that can be A or B, and let’s say a universe is twice as likely to have quality A than it is to have quality B. Let’s also say there are an infinite number of universes. This means there are an infinite number of universes with quality A and infinite number of universes with quality B. What does it then mean to say that quality A is “twice as likely” as quality B?)

Again, I’m not saying there are necessarily an infinite number of worlds, but I am making the point that Musk’s confidence that simulated worlds drastically outnumber real worlds seems overzealous considering our huge lack of knowledge.

Musk does make a good point about there perhaps being an inherent quality of civilizations like ours being prone to destroying themselves. This is easily imaginable: a super-weapon that is inevitable for us to discover and use. A super-disease. Global warming causing an extinction event. The curing of death and disease leading to global and never-ending war. There would seem to be so many unknown and catastrophic things that could go wrong with advanced civilizations. I’m much more pessimistic about the future than Musk, because it seems unwarranted to me to have so much faith in these future civilizations that they’d be producing complex simulations and AIs.

I do agree that there’s a good chance we’re living in a simulation. I mainly just found Musk’s extreme confidence unwarranted and offputting. I wanted to combat his nerd certainty with some nerd uncertainty. I find people with strongly held beliefs about this mysterious world strange and potentially dangerous. 

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