Elon Musk: 'Chances are we're all living in a simulation'

Elon Musk

Elon Musk wears many hats.

He’s the co-founder of online payments behemoth PayPal, the founder of private space flight pioneers SpaceX, the chief executive of electronic car manufacturers Tesla, and the original doodler of utopian transport concept Hyperloop. He’s also outspoken about the dangers of AI research, the need for blue-sky thinking in technology, and his desire to colonise another planet.

So it’s no surprise that over the course of an interview at California’s Code conference, Musk revealed a number of things we didn’t know before. Here’s some of them.

He’s afraid we’re all in a simulation

Musk is no stranger to the work of philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has warned before that superintelligent AI might wipe out humanity. Musk cited that fear as a reason for investing in AI company DeepMind, before it was bought by Google. But now he’s introduced the world to another concept popularised by Bostrum: the simulation problem.

The problem is that if realistic simulations of the universe are possible, then there would very quickly be far more simulations of reality than actual reality. Without any reason to assume we’re in reality rather than a simulation, the chances of us randomly happening to be in the one option among billions that isn’t fake is billions to one.

“Forty years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were,” Musk explained. “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.”

And, Musk pointed out, if we aren’t in a simulation, the most likely reason for that isn’t that we are the first civilisation ever; instead, it’s that no civilisation has ever advanced far enough to simulate reality.

When Bostrum described the argument in 2003, he presented it as an unappealing trilemma: basically no civilisations last long enough to develop simulations, the civilisations that do develop simulations are so different from our own that they wouldn’t simulate us, or we are almost certainly in a simulation already.

Musk says he has had “so many simulation discussions it’s crazy”. Less philosophically minded people might wonder if it’s just the number of discussions that’s the crazy thing.

He wants to be King of Mars

SpaceX is on track to launch people to the Red Planet in 2024, Musk says. Mars is a long way away, though, so the people wouldn’t actually arrive until 2025.

Before then, the plan is “establishing cargo flights to Mars”, getting the first delivery there by 2018 in the company’s planned “Red Dragon” ships. A rocket every two years or so after that could provide a base for the people arriving in 2024 to survive.

No stranger to mild megalomania, Musk pondered what it would mean to be the head of the company shipping the first people to Mars, and decided he’d be in a position to decide the government of the planet. Although he felt that direct democracy would work best, he also declared himself “King of Mars”. You can vote for any leader you want, as long as it’s Elon.

Not every late car is Tesla’s fault

The Model X was famously delayed by a number years, and for many analysts, Tesla’s biggest roadblock ahead is scaling up from a niche manufacturer to a mainstream company. But Musk pointed out that not every delay to the Model X was something in Tesla’s control.

One shipment of carpets for the car boots, for instance, was caught up in a shoot-out on the Mexican border. “Border patrol wouldn’t give us the truck because it had bullet holes in it”, he said, adding that other delays came because of tsunamis, hailstorms, factories burning down, sinking ships and earthquakes. “One thing that makes a car very difficult is it’s an integrative product with thousands of components,” he added, and so delays tend to cascade. “Things move as fast as the least lucky and least competent supplier.”

Only one AI firm actually scares him

He won’t say which one (but we’re going to guess that it starts with G and rhymes with “we’re all going to die at the hands of super-intelligent robotsoogle”).

And only one tech company is a Tesla competitor

But this time it’s not Google. “They’re not a car company, so they’d potentially license to other companies. I wouldn’t say they’re a competitor.”

Apple, however? “That’ll be more direct,” he admitted. The Apple car is the worst-kept secret in Silicon Valley, and the company has even poached several Tesla engineers – something Musk has been rather dismissive of. And even now, he’s not particularly concerned, estimating that Apple won’t be able to make a lot of cars till around 2020. “Is that too late?”, he asked. We think we know his answer.

Musk is going to go to orbit

For someone so into spaceflight that he’s built his own rocket ships, it’s odd that Musk hasn’t been in to space himself. But he says it’s on his to-do list.

“I’ll probably go to orbit in four to five years,” he said. “Orbit is really different than space.”

So there you have it. Musk in space. But is space just a simulation?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Thursday 2nd June 2016 12.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010