We’ve all been there. Somebody, maybe a friend of a friend who has nothing of relevance to add to the conversation, wonders aloud if this is all a simulation. It’s not exactly a reference to The Matrix, but maybe something more like what Elon Musk might let slip on Twitter — or in a hot tub, gross as that might be to visualize. Or, maybe that person is Matt Damon speaking to our nation’s brightest young minds: “What if this, all of this, is a simulation? I mean — it’s a crazy idea, but what if it is?”
Wondering about the simulation theory entered the zeitgeist a few years ago, and not ones to ignore an opportunity to align themselves with such a topic, the members of English rock band Muse announced on Thursday that their upcoming album would be called just that.
The artwork for Muse’s Simulation Theory feels very much like an elevated version of the ‘80s Text Generator meme that was popular two years ago, an aesthetic that was no-doubt inspired by Stranger Things. Things have come full circle as celebrated digital artist Kyle Lambert, the creator of much of the retro-styled Stranger Things art, also designed the cover for Simulation Theory.
When Did We Start Taking Simulation Theory Seriously?
The idea that we’re living in a computer simulation was memorably addressed by Nick Bostrom, a member of the faculty in the philosophy department at Oxford University, in 2003:
“Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are correct,” Bostrom writes in his introduction.
Interest in the topic spiked again in December 2012 — see the Google Trends line below — when a paper mentioning the theory was published in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.
Renewed Interest in Simulation Theory
Interest declined after that paper, but spiked again the spring of 2016. There’s one major, obvious clue as to where Damon got the idea to tell a class full of Harvard grads they might have earned their degrees inside a very advanced computer game: It’s Elon Musk, of course.
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said as much the Code conference put on by Recode media, in conversation with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg a few days before Damon’s eye roll-inducing speech. (It also included that off-color joke about hot tub conversation topics.)
“I’ve had so many simulation discussions, it’s crazy,” Musk told an audience member (who was journalist Josh Topolsky) during the Q&A session at that conference. He then played along with the question of whether we are in a simulation (video above):
The strongest argument for us being in a simulation, probably in a simulation, 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, instinctually, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, ‘OK, 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. Is there a flaw in that argument?
So, we have might have Matt Damon, or Elon Musk, or Joshua Topolsky to thank for this regrettable Muse album title. After the album’s November 9 release, the discussion topic of simulation theory might just receive the “sell” label, having hit true ubiquity after a band of Muse’s popularity adopts it. (One can only hope the next Kanye album is called Late Capitalism.) More likely though, the topic will be rebooted for new swath of the population.
Also on Thursday, Muse released the music video for “The Dark Side,” a live-action version of the album art. It’s more Tron ([whether that’s a simulation theory film is arguable) than The Matrix, but more than either of those things, it’s just really slick marketing: