While at the Code Conference, an industry event for tech and media people, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was asked what he thinks about the idea that the human race and everything we experience is actually a simulation created by an advanced civilization.
Basically, are we living in The Matrix? Elon Musk says it's something he's given a lot of thought to. “The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following,” he tells the Code Conference. “40 years ago we had Pong—two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable.”
It's inevitable that we'll make these types of games, says Musk, even if it take us 10,000 years, we will eventually be playing games that are indistinguishable from reality. And these games, he says, would be able to be played on all kinds of set top boxes and computers, billions of them, so “it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in ‘base reality’ is one in billions” he concludes.
And to that the guy who asked the original question asks if the answer is a "yes" then—and Musk responds with "probably." He then goes on to say that we, regardless, we should actually hope that it's true that we live in a simulated reality, because otherwise if civilization stops advancing and we didn't create such simulations it means that something catastrophic has happened. We create simulations indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist, explains Musk.
Musk is referring to an argument in a famous paper published in 2003 by philosopher Nick Bostrom called "Are You in a Computer Simulation?." The paper posits that our descendants may run simulations of the past, and those simulations might be conscious and we could be living in one of those without knowing it.
The full argument from the paper runs as follows (via Vox):
One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations.
Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea.