Is the Matrix Scientifically possible

The Matrix trilogy offered an unusually chilling version of a relatively common theme in anti-mass-consumerism film: that all of us have become cogs in a grand machine, blindly deceived into thinking that the illusion we live in is actually reality. That machine is maintained by a vague corporate aristocracy which needs to keep us enslaved to fuel its own greed for power (the “corporate” types in the Matrix are actually machines, but in the electronic dream-world of the Matrix, they invariably dress in fine suits). We need to free ourselves from the illusion in order to restore our true individuality.

It’s a compelling image – and the underlying technology involved is not necessarily overly far-fetched. We are already pushing the edges of cyborg technology in some senses. So far this tends to involve remote manipulation of limbs (in the case of mental stimulus), or the implantation of a small number of important artificial objects in the rest of the body (like pacemakers). However, while the ability to create a full-fledged, interactive illusion of reality through computer stimulus is far beyond our current technological capability, the differences are mainly ones of degree (albeit a large degree) from what we can conceive of doing today.

So, aside from needing a much more finely-tuned capability to read the human brain, essentially the most important thing missing, aside from artificial intelligence itself, is simply the raw processing power that would be needed to maintain the network. It is common today to say that the human brain is more powerful than any supercomputer. While this has been generally true, supercomputers continue to grow more and more powerful every year – and the human brain is essentially static. Still, the capacity to link billions of people together into a single illusion, and process their interactions in real time, is immeasurably greater than the entire computing capacity of all of the computers on our planet today. Quite simply it would require the construction of a network of supercomputers more powerful than we can imagine. But, again, this could be done  – at least in theory.

The real problem with the scientific feasibility of The Matrix, ironically, comes in at the very point which makes the movie so chilling: the part where human beings are, as the character Morpheus famously puts it in the first movie, reduced to mere batteries for the great machine. The reason the machines trapped humans, according to the mythology of The Matrix, is that humans unleashed weapons which created permanent cloud cover. This eliminated the capacity of the machines to live on solar power, so they turned to the next available power source: the human body.

It is true, as Morpheus explains to Neo in the first movie, that the human body is essentially a chemical power plant, and that it produces energy and heat from food. Does this mean it would be feasible to plug us all into a giant power plant and turn us into batteries?

Probably not. As elementary physics tells us, energy can neither be created nor destroyed – though it can be transferred, and we gain the capacity to do work through a variety of heat transfers. In the case of the human body, we take chemical energy stored in our food and use it to do work. The result is energy to move our bodies and power our brains, heat which we give off into the air around us – and, of course, waste products. 

Now, the human body is relatively efficient at doing these things, but at the end of the day, all it is doing is taking the chemical energy stored in the food and releasing it for use in a way which the body is designed to use it (by evolution or by God does not really matter for the moment). In the process, because all such operations are inefficient, we lose some of the energy to heat. We also – and this would matter for anyone trying to use human beings as a power source – use up a sizeable chunk of the energy simply doing essential things to keep the body functioning: cell replication, repairs, etc. Children’s bodies devote considerable energy simply to growing. The machines in The Matrix for some reason keep people functioning at full consciousness, even though the human brain alone uses up a sizeable chunk of the body’s energy requirements.

From a machine’s perspective, this makes humans very inefficient power sources. It is remotely conceivable that some future technological society (like the machine society in The Matrix) could indeed devise the technology necessary to “harvest” energy from the human body. If they were fed a sufficiently nutritious diet but no energy was used up in motion, because trapped humans simply lie in strange fluid-filled stasis chambers, and if somehow they could remove that energy rather than allow it to be stored in fat cells, then the machines could get power from humans.

All of that, however, requires an immensely great level of technology. Almost by definition, any machine society capable of inventing the technology necessary to harvest energy from human beings could simply harvest the energy directly from their food. It seems that in The Matrix, both humans in the power plant and free humans survive largely on eating some sort of high-nutrition pastes. These pastes are artificially produced by the machines. Rather than produce this nutritious paste for human production, presumably it would be much more efficient for them to skip the human stage altogether – or, at the very least, simply genetically engineer some sort of giant stomach-like processing system rather than go to the trouble of sustaining billions of inefficient individuals in a dream-world.

In short, the technology necessary to run a Matrix-like system is far ahead of our own, but may not be entirely inconceivable. What is inconceivable is that anyone capable of building such a system would not be able to think of a much more efficient method of producing energy.