Released this month 20 years ago, “The Matrix” went on to become a cultural phenomenon. This wasn’t just because of its ground-breaking special effects, but because it popularized an idea that has come to be known as the simulation hypothesis. This is the idea that the world we see around us may not be the “real world” at all, but a high-resolution simulation, much like a video game.
While the central question raised by “The Matrix” sounds like science fiction, it is now debated seriously by scientists, technologists and philosophers around the world. Elon Musk is among those; he thinks the odds that we are in a simulation are a billion to one (in favor of being inside a video-game world)!
As a founder and investor in many video game startups, I started to think about this question seriously after seeing how far virtual reality has come in creating immersive experiences. In this article we look at the development of video game technology past and future to ask the question: Could a simulation like that in “The Matrix” actually be built? And if so, what would it take?
What we’re really asking is how far away we are from The Simulation Point, the theoretical point at which a technological civilization would be capable of building a simulation that was indistinguishable from “physical reality.”
[Editor’s note: This article summarizes one section of the upcoming book, “The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are in a Video Game.“]
From science fiction to science?
But first, let’s back up.
“The Matrix,” you’ll recall, starred Keanu Reeves as Neo, a hacker who encounters enigmatic references to something called the Matrix online. This leads him to the mysterious Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne, and aptly named after the Greek god of dreams) and his team. When Neo asks Morpheus about the Matrix, Morpheus responds with what has become one of the most famous movie lines of all time: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You’ll have to see it for yourself.”
Even if you haven’t seen “The Matrix,” you’ve probably heard what happens next — in perhaps its most iconic scene, Morpheus gives Neo a choice: Take the “red pill” to wake up and see what the Matrix really is, or take the “blue pill” and keep living his life. Neo takes the red pill and “wakes up” in the real world to find that what he thought was real was actually an intricately constructed computer simulation — basically an ultra-realistic video game! Neo and other humans are actually living in pods, jacked into the system via a cord into his cerebral cortex.
Who created the Matrix and why are humans plugged into it at birth? In the two sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” we find out that Earth has been taken over by a race of super-intelligent machines that need the electricity from human brains. The humans are kept occupied, docile and none the wiser thanks to their all-encompassing link to the Matrix!
But the Matrix wasn’t all philosophy and no action; there were plenty of eye-popping special effects during the fight scenes. Some of these now have their own name in the entertainment and video game industry, such as the famous “bullet time.” When a bullet is shot at Neo, the visuals slow down time and manipulate space; the camera moves in a circular motion while the bullet is frozen in the air. In the context of a 3D computer world, this make perfect sense, though now the camera technique is used in both live action and video games. AI plays a big role too: in the sequels, we find out much more about the agents pursuing Neo, Morpheus and the team. Agent Smith (played brilliantly by Hugo Weaving), the main adversary in the first movie, is really a computer agent — an artificial intelligence meant to keep order in the simulation. Like any good AI villain, Agent Smith (who was voted the 84th most popular movie character of all time!) is able to reproduce itself and overlay himself onto any part of the simulation.
“The Matrix” storyboard from the original movie. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood)
The Wachowskis, creators of “The Matrix,” claim to have been inspired by, among others, science fiction master Philip K. Dick. Most of us are familiar with Dick’s work from the many film and TV adaptations, ranging from Blade Runner, Total Recall and the more recent Amazon show, The Man in the High Castle. Dick often explored questions of what was “real” versus “fake” in his vast body of work. These are some of the same themes we will have to grapple with to build a real Matrix: AI that is indistinguishable from humans, implanting false memories and broadcasting directly into the mind.
As part of writing my upcoming book, I interviewed Dick’s wife, Tessa B. Dick, and she told me that Philip K. Dick actually believed we were living in a simulation. He believed that someone was changing the parameters of the simulation, and most of us were unaware that this was going on. This was of course, the theme of his short story, “The Adjustment Team” (which served as the basis for the blockbuster “The Adjustment Bureau,” starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt).
A quick summary of the basic (non-video game) simulation argument
Today, the simulation hypothesis has moved from science fiction to a subject of serious debate because of several key developments.
The first was when Oxford professor Nick Bostrom published his 2003 paper, “Are You Living in a Simulation?” Bostrom doesn’t say much about video games nor how we might build such a simulation; rather, he makes a clever statistical argument. Bostrom theorized that if a civilization ever got the Simulation Point, it would create many ancestor simulations, each with large numbers (billions or trillions?) of simulated beings. Since the number of simulated beings would vastly outnumber the number of real beings, any beings (including us!) were more likely to be living inside a simulation than outside of it!
Other scientists, like physicists and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking weighed in, saying they found it hard to argue against this logic.
Bostrom’s argument implied two things that are the subject of intense debate. The first is that if any civilization every reached the Simulation Point, then we are more likely in a simulation now. The second is that we are more likely all AI or simulated consciousness rather than biological ones. On this second point, I prefer to use the “video game” version of the simulation argument, which is a little different than Bostrom’s version.
Video games hold the key
Let’s look more at the video game version of the argument, which rests on the rapid pace of development of video game and computer graphics technology over the past decades. In video games, we have both “players” who exist outside of the video game, and “characters” who exist inside the game. In the game, we have PCs (player characters) that are controlled (you might say mentally attached to the players), and NPCs (non-player characters) that are the simulation artificial characters.