I am going to tell you about one that’s been on my mind: simulation theory. Most of you’ve probably heard of this, maybe even took a class with Max Tegmark. But for the uninitiated, there’s a philosopher named Nick Bostrom at Oxford. And he has postulated if there is a truly advanced form of intelligence out there in the universe, it’s probably advanced enough to run simulations of entire worlds, maybe trillions of them, maybe even our own. So the basic idea as I understand it is that we could be living in a massive simulation run by a far smarter civilization like a giant computer game and we don’t even know it.
And here is the thing. A lot of physicists, a lot of cosmologists, they won’t rule it out. I just watched a discussion online a few weeks back, it was moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium. And by and large the panel couldn’t and wouldn’t give a definitive answer. Tyson himself put the odds at 50:50. And I’m not sure how scientific that was but it had numbers in it, so I was impressed. But it got me to thinking. What if this, all of this is a simulation. I mean it’s a crazy idea but what if it is. And if there are multiple simulations, how come we have to be in the one where Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president? Can we like transfer to a different one?
Well, Professor Tegmark has an excellent take on all of this. My advice, he said recently, is to go out and do really interesting things, so the simulators don’t shut you down. Now then again what if it isn’t a simulation. Either way, my answer is the same. Either way what we do matters, what we do affects the outcome.
So either way, MIT, you’ve got to go out and do really interesting things, important things, inventive things, because this world, real or imagined, this world has some problems that we need you to drop everything and solve. So go ahead and take your pick from the world’s worst buffet. Economic inequality, that’s a problem. How about the refugee crisis? Massive global insecurity, climate change, pandemics, institutional racism, a pull to nativism, fear-driven brains working overtime, here in America and in places like Austria, where a far-right candidate nearly won the presidential election for the first time since World War II.
Or the Brexit, for God’s sakes, that insane idea that the best path for Britain is to cut loose from Europe and drift out to sea. I mean, what is Europe even going to look like in 25 years? And add to that an American political system that’s failing. We’ve got congressmen on a two-year election cycle who are only incentivized to think short term, and simply do not engage with long-term problems.
And add to that a media that thrives on scandal and people with their pants down , anything to get you to tune in so they can hawk you products that you don’t need. And add to that a banking system that steals people’s money. It’s all right. I’m not running for office.
By the way while I’m on this, let me just say this to the bankers, specifically the ones who brought you the biggest heist in history: It was theft and you knew it. It was fraud and you knew it. And you know what else? We know that you knew it. So yeah, you sort of got away with it. You got that house in the Hamptons that other people paid for, as their own mortgages went underwater. And you might have their money, but you don’t have our respect. And just so you know, when we pass you on the street and look you in the eye, that’s what we’re thinking.
And I don’t know if justice is coming for you in this life or the next. But if justice does come for you in this life, her name will be Elizabeth Warren.
All right. So before my little banking digression, I rattled off a bunch of big problems. And a natural response is to tune out and turn away.
But before you step out into our big, troubled world, I want to pass along a piece of advice that Bill Clinton offered me a little over a decade ago. Actually, when he said it, it felt less like advice and more like a direct order. What he said was “turn toward the problems you see”. You have to engage and turn towards the problems that you see. Except it sounded like turn towards the problems that you see.
But when he said this to me, he literally turned his body for emphasis towards me. No, listen, it seemed kind of simple at the time, but the older I get, the more wisdom I see in this. And that is what I want to urge you to do today: turn towards the problems that you see and engage with them. Walk right up to them, look them in the eye and then look yourself in the eye and decide what you’re going to do about them.
Now in my experience, there’s just no substitute for actually going and seeing these things. I owe this insight, like many others, to my Mom. When I was a teenager, Mom thought it was important for us to see the world outside of Boston. And I don’t just mean Framingham. She took us to places like Guatemala, where we saw extreme poverty up close. And it changed my whole frame of reference.