Wednesday night, in no particular order in the space of an hour: The N.B.A. suspended its season. Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife have the coronavirus. President Trump, who had spent time hate-tweeting Vanity Fair magazine earlier in the day, banned travel from Europe. And, of course, the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, wearing a pink, fluffy bear outfit, sang Sir Mix-A-Lotâs âBaby Got Backâ on âThe Masked Singer.â Correction: Badly sang it.
In perhaps the most accurate assessment of the night, Josh Jordan tweeted: âWe are living in a simulation and it has collapsed on itself.â
I do not believe in the simulation hypothesis, which he is joking about here. For those not familiar, it posits that what we think of as reality is not actually real. Instead, we are living in a complex simulation that was probably created by a supercomputer, invented by an obviously superior being.
Everythingâs fake news, if you will, or really just designed as a giant video game to amuse what would have to be the brainiest teenagers who ever lived.
But while most people think they actually do exist, wouldnât it be nice to have a blame-free explanation to cope with the freak show that has become our country and the world? (I vote yes, even if some quantum computer just made me type that.)
It would be, which is why the idea of the simulation hypothesis has been a long- running, sort-of joke among some of Silicon Valleyâs top players, some of whom take it more seriously than you might imagine.
Some background: While the basic idea around the simulation hypothesis really goes back to philosophers like Descartes, we got a look-see at this tech-heavy idea in the 1999 movie âThe Matrix.â
In the film, Keanu Reevesâs character, Neo, is jarred out of his anodyne existence to find that he has been living, unaware, in a virtual world in which the energy from his body, and everyone elseâs, is used as fuel for the giant computer. Neoâs body is literally jacked with all kinds of scary-looking plugs, and he finally becomes powerful enough to wave his hands around real fast and break the bad guys into itty-bitty bytes.
The idea that weâre all living in a simulation took off big time among tech folks in 2003 when Oxford Universityâs big thinker of the future, Nick Bostrom, wrote a paper on the subject. He focused on the likely amazing computing abilities of advanced civilizations and the fact that it is not too crazy to imagine that the devices they make could simulate human consciousness.
So why not do that to run what Mr. Bostrom called the âancestor simulationâ game? The ancestors, by the way, are us.
My mind was blown again a few years later on the topic. During an interview that Walt Mossberg and I did in 2016 with the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, an audience member asked Mr. Musk what he thought of the idea. As it turned out, he had thought a lot about it, saying that he had had âso many simulation discussions itâs crazy.â
Which was not to say the discussions were crazy. In fact, Mr. Musk quickly made the case that video game development had become so sophisticated that it was âindistinguishable from reality.â
And, as to that âbase realityâ we think we are living in? Not so much, said Mr. Musk. In fact, he insisted this was a good thing, arguing that âeither weâre going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist. Those are the two options.â
I would like to tell you that was not the last time I heard that formulation, or one like it, from the tech moguls I have covered. The Zappos founder Tony Hsieh once told me we were in one after we did an interview, as we were exiting the stage. I think he was kidding, but he also went over why it might be so and why it was important to bend your mind to consider the possibility.
After hearing the simulation idea so many times, I started to figure out that it was less about the idea that none of this is real. Instead, these tech inventors used it more to explain, inspire and even to force innovation, rather than to negate reality and its inherently hopeless messiness. In fact, it was freeing.
At least that is my take, giving me something that I could like about them, since there was so much not to like.
To my mind, tech leaders do not use the simulation hypothesis as an excuse to do whatever they want. Theyâre not positing that nothing matters because none of this is happening. Instead, it allows them to hold out the possibility that this game could also change for the better rather than the worse. And, perhaps, we as pawns have some influence on that outcome too and could turn our story into a better one.
Perhaps this optimism was manifesting in the hopeful news that the Cleveland Clinic may have come up with a faster test for the coronavirus. Or that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the coronavirus task force, exists as a scientific superhero to counter all the bad information that is spewed out to vulnerable citizens like my own mother by outlets like Fox News.
In fact, it felt like a minor miracle when the tireless Dr. Fauci popped up on Sean Hannityâs show this week to kindly school him on his irresponsible downplaying and deep-state conspiracy mongering of the health crisis. Pushing back on the specious claim that the coronavirus is just like the flu â a notion also promoted by Mr. Trump â Dr. Fauci said, âItâs 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,â to a temporarily speechless Mr. Hannity. âYou got to make sure that people understand that!â
I sure have Dr. Fauci to thank for saying that, which he repeated in congressional testimony too. In all this mess, it felt like a positive turn in the game. But just in case a game it is, Iâll also raise a simulated glass to those teenagers somewhere out there pushing all the buttons to make it so. Not so much for Sarah Palinâs singing, but Iâll take that too.
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