In 2024, The Matrix celebrates its 25th anniversary – a quarter of a century on from the film’s release—and with an exponential number of AI developments—are we anywhere close to living in the Matrix?
Since the release of The Matrix, philosophers and academics have published essays, studies, and books arguing that we live in some sort of simulation or suggesting that our reality is not as we believe it.
Conspiracy theorists online will often cite ‘glitches in The Matrix,’ like politicians freezing during speeches, or they refer to the Mandela effect to indicate that our world is made up of code and pixels. The philosopher and founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, Nick Bostrom, published his simulation theory in 2003, arguing that technology will develop at such a rate that society will soon be able to reproduce complex worlds and societies.
Whether we choose to act or already have acted on this ability to reproduce complex societies was a key part of the text. Philosopher and co-director of NYU’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness, David Chalmers also published his Reality+ theory in 2022, arguing that our physical and virtual realities are becoming indistinguishable.
Chalmers’ argument that physical and virtual realities will become inseparable was only aided by Covid-19, which saw a large portion of the world population’s working and personal life migrated to virtual spaces—something which, for many, never returned. Remote working and online meetings are now prevalent, and the trend of micro-influencers on TikTok means that large portions of people are living their lives on and through social media.
However, while we may live in an increasingly digital world, it is to be debated whether technology has the potential to support the theories that we will have the ability to create alternative reality simulations.
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Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have become increasingly popular in recent years. VR describes fully online worlds, whereas AR blends real worlds with virtual data layers, for example, PokemonGo. VR headsets and AR/VR’s accompanying gaming market have both become prevalent in recent years.
During the pandemic, headsets extended beyond gameplay and allowed people to attend festivals and concerts as well as enterprise use cases like surgical training, all from home. One definition of reality is the state of being awake and living in a certain situation, and these headsets allow for real situations to be lived in. However, it is only in recent years that these worlds have been explorable in three dimensions with the help of VR headsets. Previously, humans were relegated to playing God on a standard monitor in games like Second Life and The Sims.
Meta and Microsoft both attempted to expand 3D virtual realities away from gaming, to integrate these worlds into their existing platforms with the metaverse. But this was met with disappointment. As noted by GlobalData, we are currently in a metaverse winter that will continue well into 2024.
The adoption of VR has been slow, and it is yet to become indistinguishable from life like in The Matrix. But a technology that is rapidly advancing and shaping how we live is AI. GlobalData has AI as the leading technological development to watch in 2024. Since the launch of ChatGPT and image creation software in 2023, AI has only grown in prominence and design. Its creation of images and the resulting misinformation and deepfakes are already starting to blur the lines between virtual spaces and reality. While these creations only exist in a virtual sense, they are widely circulated and are used to manipulate perceptions, beliefs, and, subsequently, reality.
Now, image creation is the closest form of AI we have to change public opinions and is already putting some of the biggest real-life developments at risk, such as elections. With an unprecedented number of elections happening globally in the forthcoming year, the public’s perception of truth—and the uncertainty around misinformation—will be put into question.
While AI has yet to become sentient in the way it is in the movies—such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey—Mustafa Suleyman (founder of DeepMind and CEO of Inflection AI) believes that we are not far off.
The risks associated with achieving sentience are a reminder that AI must be regulated and that accountability and transparency are vital in this space, especially as the technology rapidly develops. In fact, there have been several recent breakthroughs. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced that as part of their AI development, they have been able to get their system to reproduce itself and build small language models from the data and code from which it is learning.
The smaller system can perform small tasks like identifying voices and tracking animal movements. Elsewhere this year, Open AI wants to develop an artificial general intelligence that can mimic human tasks on an intellectual level, engaging as well as reproducing. If we have AI with the capability of reproducing itself and programming, we may be edging closer and closer to a science fiction reality.