Opinion: 25 years later, ‘The Matrix’ is less sci-fi than tech reality

Editor’s Note: Rizwan Virk, who founded Play Labs @ MIT, is the author of “The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics Agree We Are in a Video Game” and “The Simulated Multiverse.” He is currently at Arizona State University’s College of Global Futures in the Center for Science and the Imagination. Follow him on X @rizstanford, on Instagram @rizcambridge and at zenentrepreneur.com. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

It’s been 25 years since the release of the blockbuster film “The Matrix,” created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (credited in the film as the Wachowski brothers), which popularized the idea that we might already be inside a computer-generated video game world.

Rizwan Virk - Courtesy of Rizwan Virk
Rizwan Virk - Courtesy of Rizwan Virk

“The Matrix,” released March 31, 1999, wasn’t the most anticipated film of the final year of the 20th century (that would probably have been “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace”), but it inevitably became the most talked-about film that year and one we’re still talking about today.

The film’s buzz was partly because of its groundbreaking special effects (like bullet time), but the movie has remained relevant because of our ongoing angst with artificial intelligence (AI) and the core techno-philosophical question of the film that is now asked regularly: Are we living inside a computer simulation?

In the decades since, this idea, now called the simulation hypothesis, has come to be taken more seriously by technologists, scientists and philosophers. The main reason for this shift is the stunning improvements in computer graphics, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) and AI. Taking into account three developments just this year from Apple, Neuralink and OpenAI, I can now confidently state that as you are reading this article, you are more likely than not already inside a computer simulation. This is because the closer our technology gets to being able to build a fully interactive simulation like the Matrix, the more likely it is that someone has already built such a world, and we are simply inside their video game world.

At the time of the film’s release, this idea of being inside a video game was firmly in the realm of science fiction. It had been articulated by one of the Wachowskis’ heroes, science fiction author Philip K. Dick, who stated, all the way back in 1977, “We are living in a computer programmed reality.”

A few years ago, I interviewed Dick’s wife Tessa and asked her what he would have thought of “The Matrix.” She said his first reaction would have been that he loved it; however, his second reaction would most likely have been to call his agent to see if he could sue the filmmakers for stealing his ideas.

When the film came out, the World Wide Web was relatively new and AI was still in development, but underneath the techno-optimism of the dot-com boom, we were already feeling anxiety about where the technology would take us. Much like “The Terminator” in the 1980s, when personal computers (without internet connections) were all the rage, “The Matrix” tapped into nascent fears of being connected all the time via cyberspace.

I watched the movie again recently for my college-level class about simulation theory, where I use “The Matrix” as a vehicle to ask questions about philosophy, science, AI, technology and religion. The movie still resonates with today’s younger generation, many of whom grew up on multiplayer online games like Fortnite and Roblox. Most also now use AI tools like ChatGPT on a daily basis and have few qualms about doing so.

Given that AI is now in the news every day, “The Matrix” is more relevant than ever. In one notable scene in the film, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo (Keanu Reeves) that he is trapped in a simulation of 1999; the real year is around 2199. Morpheus explains that sometime in the early 21st century, AI became conscious and there was a war between humans and AI.

The most famous sequence in the film starts with Morpheus asking Neo, who wants to know what the Matrix is, whether he will take the red pill and be “woken up” or if he will take the blue pill and return to blissful ignorance living in the simulated world of 1999.

Twenty-five years later, the term “red pill” has been coopted and overused to mean that someone is waking up to deception by the powers that be. Still, this sequence, which ends with Neo waking up in a futuristic world where humans are enslaved by AI, inspired many to  consider whether we, too, were living in a simulation.

I began to wonder this myself when I first played a VR ping-pong game that was so realistic that I tried to put the non-existent paddle down on the non-existent table. I speculated on how long it would take us to reach the simulation point, a kind of technological singularity that would mark our ability to create AI-generated virtual worlds that are indistinguishable from the physical world.

The closer we get to this point, the chances that we are already inside a simulation go up rapidly. In 2003, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom imagined a “technologically mature” civilization could easily create a simulated world. The logic, then, is that if any civilization ever reaches this point, it would create not just one but a very large number of simulations (perhaps billions), each with billions of AI characters, simply by firing up more servers.

With simulated worlds far outnumbering the “real” world, the likelihood that we are in a simulation would be significantly higher than not. It was this logic that prompted Elon Musk to state, a few years ago, that the chances that we are not in a simulation (i.e. that we are in base reality) was “one in billions.”

It’s a theory that is difficult to prove — but difficult to disprove as well. Remember, the simulations would be so good that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a physical and a simulated world. Either the signals are being beamed directly into your brain, or we are simply AI characters inside the simulation.

Think of either Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who represented one of many “programs” or AI characters, or characters like Neo and Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss), who existed outside of the Matrix and had digital representations (called avatars today) inside the simulation.

Recent developments in Silicon Valley show that we could get to the simulation point very soon. Just this year, Apple released its Vision Pro headset — a mixed-reality (including augmented and virtual reality) device that, if you believe initial reviews (ranging from mildly positive to ecstatic), heralds the beginning of a new era of spatial computing — or the merging of digital and physical worlds.

The headset can make you believe you are in another time and place, but more importantly, it can overlay realistic-looking objects in the room around you, blurring the line between physical and digital objects. The headset is still expensive (it retails for $3,500) and bulky compared to headsets in science fiction (like in “Westworld,” “Ready Player One” or “3 Body Problem”), but we can see a direct line to being able to render a realistic fictional world around us.

But what if you didn’t need a headset at all? Earlier this year, Musk announced the first human implant of a brain chip from his company, Neuralink. While previous Neuralink demos have shown promise by implanting chips in and reading the brainwaves of a pig and a monkeythe current human clinical trials show that a quadriplegic man can play video games using his mind.  

Though nascent, we can see a clear path to future technology that might send signals into the brain, reminiscent of the sci-fi neural interfaces used by Neo and Morpheus in “The Matrix.”

Finally, the driving force in Silicon Valley over the past few years has been the rapid development of artificial intelligence in the form of products like ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini to DALL-E and Midjourney.

The rapid pace at which AI is developing has led to warnings of an AI apocalypse, with thousands of scientists and technologists demanding a pause in research. One prominent AI researcher even promoted the possibility of bombing rogue AI data centers.

In “The Matrix,” Morpheus explains to Neo that the physical world is a wasteland, not because of AI, but because of the war between AI and humans. It was the humans who scorched the planet in the hopes of shutting down AI by cutting off their access to solar power. The AI had a clever solution: It was able to create realistic-enough simulations that humans could be fooled into believing they were in the real world.

Is this really feasible? Just last month, OpenAI released Sora AI, which can now generate highly realistic videos that are pretty damn difficult to distinguish from real human videos.

The fact that AI can so easily fool humans visually as well as through text (and according to some, has already passed the well-known Turing Test) shows that we are not far from fully immersive worlds populated with simulated AI characters that seem (and perhaps even think they are) conscious. Already, millions of humans are chatting with AI characters, and millions of dollars are pouring into making AI characters more realistic. Some of us may be players of the game, who have forgotten that we allowed the signal to be beamed into our brain, while others, like Neo or Morpheus or Trinity in “The Matrix,” may have been plugged in at birth.

Remember that in a realistic simulation, unlike in the film, most of the characters in the simulation would be AI characters, or NPCs (a common term in video games that stands for “non-player characters”), thinking they are conscious and living in a real world. Think of the training simulation that Neo gets plugged into which has a woman in red and millions of NPCs roaming the simulated world, not aware of what, who or where they are.

Rewatching “The Matrix” today will most likely make you look around and ask, as Neo did, “You mean this isn’t real?” On the 25th anniversary of this mind-blowing film, I can answer that it’s probably not real. The fact that we are approaching the simulation point so soon in our future means that the likelihood that we are already inside someone else’s advanced simulation goes up exponentially. Like Neo, we would be unable to tell the difference between a simulated and a physical world. Perhaps the most appropriate response to that is another of Reeves’ most famous lines from that now-classic sci-fi film: Woah.

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