What keeps George Hotz, the enigmatic hacker and founder of self-driving startup Comma.ai, up at night is not whether his autonomous car company will be successful or what other entrepreneurial venture he might embark on next. No, instead, Hotz says he’s tortured by the possibility that all of us are in an advanced simulation observed by either an omnipotent extraterrestrial or supernatural being, or an artificial intelligence far beyond the realm of human conception and understanding.
“There’s no evidence this is not true,” an animated Hotz told a crowd at his SXSW talk on Friday, aptly titled “Jailbreaking the Simulation” and billed on the festival’s website as an exploration of whether breaking out of a simulated universe means we can “meet God” and kill him. “It’s easy to imagine things that are so much smarter than you and they could build a cage you wouldn’t even recognize.”
The theory, known widely as the simulation hypothesis, posits that life on Earth, and by extension the Solar System and even the universe itself, is potentially a computer simulation, either a video game or some other form of entertainment for advanced lifeforms or possibly some type of AI-guided simulation of ancestral life created by a far-future version of humanity. It’s a popular proposition that has, in recent years, been publicly entertained by big names in tech, like Elon Musk, and has been more seriously considered and unpacked by prominent philosophers like Nick Bostrom.
Hotz it would appear is one of the believers, or so he would have the crowd at SXSW think. The 29-year-old entrepreneur, who rose to notoriety as a teenager when he became the first hacker to unlock the first-generation iPhone, has always has been an off-the-wall, outside-the-box thinker in the buttoned-up, anodyne world of Silicon Valley.
He landed himself in hot water when he jailbroke Sony’s PlayStation 3, leading to a contentious lawsuit that was later settled. But the event set Hotz down the path of a tech industry outsider ever since, leading to short-lived stints at Facebook, Google, and San Francisco-based AI company Vicarious. In 2015, he founded self-driving startup Comma.ai, which aims to democratize access to self-driving software and is predicated on Hotz’s belief that the current direction of the autonomous industry is a giant scam.
But at SXSW, it appears Hotz has committed himself to letting loose and pushing the boundaries of acceptable marketing conference subject matter. His talks here, including one three years ago in which he promised to end capitalism, feature a seemingly unhinged version of himself who rants with glee and whips up the crowd into a fringe frenzy.
And the audiences, seemingly like-minded types who’ve followed Hotz’s pinballing career trajectory, typically love it. Yesterday, Hotz spoke to a room of roughly 100 or so people while sporting a hoodie, a bushy beard, and an unkempt mop of curly hair. Throughout the talk, he likened programming to magic, considered how he would like to one day die, and said one of the most most upsetting aspects of life in the future will be when we all realize we probably don’t have free will.
At one point, Hotz said he was even entertaining founding a religion dedicated to breaking out of the simulated universe. “I’m thinking about starting a church. There are a lot of structural problems with companies — there’s no real way to win,” Hotz said, referring to how the end outcome of any capitalist venture is always to maximize profit, sell the company, or combust, all of which Hotz considers failures.
“With companies, you only really lose. I think churches might be much more aligned toward these goals, and the goal of the church would be realigning society’s efforts toward getting out [of the simulation].” It sounds an awful lot like what Anthony Levandowski, the infamous former Uber and Google engineer who spawned a multi-million dollar lawsuit between the two companies, is doing with Way of the Future, an organization dedicated to “creating a peaceful and respectful transition of who is in charge of the planet” once machines surpass human intelligence.
“I don’t know how close you guys think the singularity, but I think it’s very close. Once we reach the singularity, If we have the same motivations we have now — primarily power over people — things are going to be horrific,” Hotz added. “Getting the right people together, and starting to say, ‘What does it mean to get out?’ No quackery, no crap. Everything you say better be rationally justifiable.”
It’s hard to know seriously to take Hotz sometimes; he strikes me as someone who often says something to get a reaction or to verbalize his inner monologue as a way of making sense of it. And he said as much onstage. “Do I actually believe it? Some days yes,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about something until I say it out loud.”
The crowd didn’t much care either way. During the Q&A, an audience member asked Hotz if he would consider partnering with transhumanists — people who believe in humanity’s eventual evolution by way of merging the body and mind with robotics and AI — to found his church. Hotz was rather ambivalent to the idea; perhaps he didn’t think people would take him at his word. But if he does a start a church, the sermon he gave at SXSW yesterday was delivered to a room of would-be believers.