Is 'The Matrix' Real?

Do we live in a simulation?

Agent Smith mannequin from 'The Matrix'

Marcin Wichary/Flickr/CC by 2.0 

Do we live in a simulation? Twenty years ago, the Wachowskis burst upon the scene with The Matrix, a sci-fi action flick with a philosophical heart. The movie proposes an answer to the basic question of the simulation hypothesis: that our world is a counterfeit reality running on a massive computer. The film also gives us a glimpse into a future where such a simulation can actually exist. Is our world, then, a simulation?

Fortunately for us, current technology doesn’t quite live up to that of the film’s artificial intelligence (AI) machine antagonists. It’s highly unlikely we’re in the Matrix.

Assuming we’re not being used as living batteries controlled by spider-like AI machines while we dream our “real” lives, we can still note how many technological advances have happened since the movie’s release in 1999. The film is ostensibly a parable about the danger of artificial intelligence, sure, but it also introduces science fictional technologies we've caught up with in the present day. 

Virtual Reality

VR is much more realistic these days than in the late ’90s, thanks in great part to advances in computing power. Today, you can buy off-the shelf headsets that will plug into your PC or gaming console and immerse you in a 360 degree environment. You can battle dragons in full 3D with Skyrim VR, hang out with cartoon characters from animated show Rick and Morty, and tromp around the wasteland in Fallout 4 VR

In addition to VR, there’s mixed and augmented reality, where the virtual and the real world blend. Microsoft has Hololens, Google had Glass, and Magic Leap has released their hotly-anticipated first try. Millions of players took to the very real streets in search of very un-real pocket-sized monsters with Pokémon Go.

In other words, we’re becoming much more comfortable with the virtual invading our analog world, as was predicted in The Matrix.  

Artificial Intelligence

The central bad guys in the Warner Bros movie are machines, artificial intelligence run wild. What felt like wild speculation in 1999 has possibly become a bit closer to the truth. Not only do we have artificial intelligence in our smartphones, but millions of folks all over the world have invited it into their homes in the form of smart speakers like Apple’s HomePod, Amazon’s Echo line of smart things, and Google’s Home series of devices. 

We may not be under physical threat from hordes of intelligent machines, but we do give up plenty of our privacy to have the convenience of a smart speaker. And, like silicon before it, AI is only going to continue to become more sophisticated. Google’s Assistant can already handle phone calls for you, and surely labs around the world continue to learn how to make AI much smarter. It might not be too far-fetched to be afraid of what AI could become.

Communication and Telephony

It’s hard to watch an older movie like The Matrix and not see technology like CRT computer monitors, “dumb” cell phones, and landlines as hopelessly outdated. These days, we all use laptops, watch massive flat screen smart TVs, and carry rectangular glass supercomputers around in our pockets. 

In The Matrix, Neo and his band of reality hackers used Nokia cellphones to communicate between the “real” world and the simulation itself. They needed hard-wired land line phones to move between the realities, not to mention massive needles inserted into jacks in their heads. There was precious little of the nascent World Wide Web in the film (and thank goodness for that; the cheesiness of early internet predictions might've overwhelmed the story they were telling).

Today, most of us have a smartphone allowing us to connect with anyone in the world in real time, thanks to satellite and internet technologies. We interact via voice and text no matter what device we're on, and the landline is fast becoming a relic of the past. If nothing else, The Matrix of today would have to find a new conceit to move its characters back and forth between realities. 

Drones

The swimming squid-like machine monsters in the film are scary because of the way they look, as well as their capabilities for mayhem. No one wants to be chased by a multi-limbed harbinger of death, whether it’s human or blue whale-sized. 

In our own modern world, we may not have vicious predator drones out for our blood, but we do have drones. Rolling drones to deliver our groceries, flying drones to deliver Amazon packages, and military drones that drop bombs. On second thought, perhaps we’re much closer to The Matrix than we realize. 

Everything Is Code

Caution: 20 year-old spoilers. At the end of The Matrix, Neo finds his power by realizing everything is made of code. He can hack it, control it, and see things in machine language. That’s not too far off from where we are now: even our refrigerators are smart. Everything is controlled by computers and the code powering them. Even further, the Internet of Things has proven we’ve infused code into our homes in ways both subtle and obvious. 

Where would we be without our smart ovens, the app-centric economy, or our robot pets? Maybe in a world like The Matrix?

The Power of Prediction

It’s unlikely we’re being harvested by killer robots for our electricity-producing bodies (though we’re not ruling it out). Still, science fiction has always had the power of prediction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explored the medical uses of various body parts long before we learned how to transplant organs to save and prolong our own lives. Early science fiction author Robert Heinlein famously invented tele-robotics in his short story, “Waldo.” We now call such devices “waldos.” Star Trek used cell phone-shaped communicators while commanding computers with their voices, both things we take for granted these days. 

The point isn't The Matrix got it all right, of course, but many of our modern technologies owe a debt to the 20-year-old imaginings of the Wachowskis and their groundbreaking film.