picture of Elon Musk

JB Nicholas/Splash News

Are we, and the universe we inhabit, a simulation? SpaceX and Tesla Motors supremo Elon Musk thinks so, telling us that there is a billions to one chance that we actually exist physically: it is much more likely that we are data swirling around in someone’s immense supercomputer. What led him to this strange conclusion?

Musk is immersed in a technological world, one that has seen immense advancement over the past few decades, and it seems inevitable to him that a functioning human brain, consciousness and all, will exist within a computer in the not-too-distant future. With the inexorable growth in computing power over the next few millennia, this first lonely brain will be joined by many more in an entire computed universe.

To quote the great author Douglas Adams, maybe “this has already happened” and we ourselves are living in someone else’s synthetic universe. But how would we ever know? It is a difficult question for science to address, as uncovering the laws of nature would really be revealing the algorithms inside the computer program.

There are some intriguing properties of the universe that make us stop and think about the possibility of a simulation, in particular the masses of fundamental particles, such as electrons and quarks, and the strengths of the forces that dictate their interactions.

Dead sterile cosmos

Growing evidence tells us that if the universe had been born with masses and forces only slightly different to the ones we have, the results would have been catastrophic, with a dead and sterile cosmos. Perhaps we are only here because some higher dimensional programmer “fine-tuned …

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