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05 December 2016Last updated
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Virtual reality

Suresh Menon is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is

Suresh Menon
18 Oct 2016 | 04:26 pm
  • Source:Illustration by Simon Myers

It was either Chuang Tzu or another philosopher by the same name who talked about his butterfly dream. He once dreamt he was a butterfly, jollying along, doing what butterflies do, spreading good cheer and pollen dust, and then he woke up. ‘Now I don’t know,’ he wrote, ‘whether I am a philosopher who once dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he is a philosopher.’

How can you tell?

A more recent philosopher – but with a few million dollars more in the bank – Elon Musk has made a similar observation. We might be, he said, computer-generated entities living inside a more advanced civilisation’s video game.

How can you tell?

This is like an angry bird or one of those computer-generated entities suddenly waking up and asking the same question. So why is it any different for us simply because we created the angry bird. Perhaps we were programmed to.

If I don’t believe I am computer-generated, there are some good reasons for it. For one, I have no superpowers. I can’t walk through walls – or at least I don’t think I can walk through walls. Granted, there is the possibility that I can actually walk through walls, but merely believe I can’t. Part of the programming.

For another, I have no burning desire to save the planet, like Ironman or a more recent hero of mine, Anagraman (who speaks only in anagrams, and says ‘Ill topor, toss’ or even ‘Still, or stoop’ when he means ‘Stop, or I’ll shoot’).

And for a third – and this is a clincher – I too once dreamt I was a butterfly, a gift given only to philosophers.

In 10,000 years, says Musk, our games will become indistinguishable from reality. So we are safe for the moment. Our generation can still tell games from reality, although while watching some debates on television, it is becoming difficult to do so.

But the fact is, the inability of future generations to distinguish between games and reality might actually be good news. It will mean that our civilisation has made progress. So far we have measured progress by the number of people we have been able to destroy in wars, and that’s not a good measure. Of course, it also reduces the free will versus determinism debate to nothing.

Sometimes progress hits us faster than we think. My advice, if you discover one day that you can walk through walls or have the ability to catch flying bullets with your teeth (without it rearranging your dentures): drop in a note to Mr Elon Musk. Everybody has a right to know when he is right. Of course, you have a right to ‘no’ too.

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Suresh Menon

Suresh Menon