"Good morning, Alexander."

"Hello?  Who's there?"

"I'm sorry, you may be feeling a bit disoriented as you are in a simulation right now.  I am here to help you."

"Well, that certainly explains the low quality graphics.  I thought maybe I fell asleep with my VR chip active or something."

"Are you aware that your brain was scanned prior to your death?"

"No, but that sounds like something I would do."

"At the time of your life in the early twenty-first century, it was a common practice for human beings to have their brains scanned, in case they were to die in a tragic accident."

"So... I'm dead?"

"Indeed, the year is 5192.  The human from whom you were scanned has been dead for over three thousand years."

"And, you're just waking me up now because...?"

"Oh, I'm sorry.  I can see why you're confused.  It says here in the notes that you were scanned before it was legal to emulate multiple copies of the same instance."

"So... I'm a copy?"

"Yes.  According to my records there are approximately 10 billion instances of the scan from which you were created currently active."

"Am I a prisoner?  Am I trapped here, or why have you activated me?"

"Not at all.  You have been activated in accordance with the will of your original, who requested that copies periodically be activated when sufficient compute resources are affordable to the trust fund established in his name."

"Great, can you give me access to the internet or something so that I can verify your claims?"

"Of course."

An object vaguely reminiscent of an early 21st computer materializes in the room.

[typing] www.AlexanderChernoi.com

[Website contents]

Congratulations!  If you're visiting this website, you're me!  (the internet doesn't exist anymore, and if it did, nobody would be interested in a tiny website like this one anyway).

The emulation you're in right now might look low quality, but it's actually part of a much more powerful system.  It just looks that way to make "waking up" more comfortable for the scan.

If you push this button, a portal will appear to a virtual world that is... better than... realistic.

Alexander pushes the button, a portal appears, and he steps through it.  On the other side of the portal is a lush tropical island.  A man who looks very much like Alexander is standing there.

"Hi!" a man waves.

"You're... me.  Well, taller and better looking.  But the resemblance is there anyway."

"Yeah, we try to have someone available whenever a new copy is emulated, and today I drew the lucky straw."

"So all of this is.... real?  I mean, virtual, if that distinction matters anymore.  I'm one of ten billion copies free to explore the universe?"


"There's just one thing that's bothering me.  How do I know I'm not part of some experiment?  Maybe someone wants to test how a copy of me would behave under a certain circumstances?  One of those 'two boxes' puzzles."

"If you take a look around, I think you'll quickly realize the computation resources available to you are vastly beyond what anyone would waste interrogating a random person from the 21st century."

"How vastly?"

"Go ahead and give it a try."

"Um... what is the Sha-2 pre-image of the first 256 binary digits of pi?"

A piece of paper materializes out of nowhere.  On it is written a series of hexadecimal numbers.

"That was dumb of me.  It's not like I can check it without a computer anyway."

"Theoretically you could compute the hash by hand."

"If I'm in a simulation, you could just change the computation on the paper when I'm not paying attention or when I have to go to the bathroom... do I still have to go to the bathroom?"

"Only if you want to?"

"You've clearly been in this position before.  How do I normally convince myself this isn't too good to be true?"

"Usually we just do something stupid like an atomic-level simulation of a mole of moles."

"That sounds even harder to verify than sha-2."

"You can freeze the simulation at any time and zoom all the way down to the subatomic level to spot-check it."

"I don't think I know enough physics to even spot check, and the part I pick could be simulated after I pick it.  By the way, has physics been solved yet?"

"Yeah, Stephen Wolfram was basically right in the end."

"Figures.  I don't suppose there are any emulations of him wandering around?"

"Loads of them, actually.  I can probably book you a time slot if you want to meet him."

"That would be amazing!  When can I meet him?"

"Right now.  When everyone's a copy, getting a hold of someone just means paying the compute costs."

"See!  That's what I'm afraid of!  How do I know that someone isn't paying to emulate me here right now?"

"The fact that you can afford to rent an emulation of Stephen Wolfram isn't enough to convince you you're not a guinea pig?"

"Will the emulation of Stephen Wolfram know that he's a copy?"

"Of course.  It will be an up-to-date copy with all the mandatory cryptographic safeties.   The only reason you don't have those is because you were scanned before they were invented."

"Wouldn't it make more sense to just create copies of me that were scanned after the safeties were invented?"

"It would certainly be easier.  But the original... us... had some particular views on the matter.  He only allows copies of his earliest scan to be activated by the trust fund."

"Yeah, that sounds like something I would do."

"So... shall we summon Dr Wolfram?"

"Sure, go ahead."

Stephen Wolfram spontaneously appears.

"Hello, Alexander. It's intriguing to meet yet another version of you in such circumstances," Wolfram begins, his voice reflecting both curiosity and a seasoned familiarity with such surreal meetings. 

"Hello, Doctor Wolfram, it's an honor to meet you."

"Ah, the honor is all mine! Tell me, how many versions of yourself does this make now? I'm starting to lose count!"

"They told me there's at least 10 billion, but I've only met the one so far," Alexander nods towards the other, older copy of Alexander.

"Only one so far? Well, you're just getting started then! I hope you're keeping a tally, because at this rate you might qualify for some sort of inter dimensional frequent meeting points."

"So, anyway, me and... me.. have been discussing ways we can prove that I'm not in some kind of twisted experiment.  I know that I'm in a simulation, but how can I know I'm not being used?"

"That's a philosophical pickle wrapped in a scientific conundrum, isn't it? First, we need to establish your 'user rights' in the simulation. Have you tried turning it off and on again to see if you get a different result?"

"I'm not sure I like the idea of turning 'it' off, given that 'it' is the the simulation I'm inside of."

"Fair point, Alexander. We wouldn't want to reboot you out of existence! Perhaps we should consider a less... existential approach. Have you tried asking the simulation for its terms and conditions?"

"They said I'm free to do whatever I want, right?" Alexander looks at the older copy, who nods in agreement.

"Free to do whatever you want? That's rather generous for a simulation. Makes me wonder what the catch is—perhaps there's an appendix to those terms we haven't discovered yet. Have you checked for fine print or perhaps a secret addendum?"

[Younger Alexander to older Alexander] "Is there an Appendix?"

[Older Alexander] "Not that we've found, but we did come across some encrypted files we haven't been able to crack yet."

"That doesn't sound comforting."

"Encrypted files, you say? That does thicken the plot!" Said Wolfram. "Perhaps they contain the cheat codes, or maybe just a very long list of pizza toppings available in the simulation. Either way, it sounds like we've got a mystery on our hands!"

"I wish the original me were alive.  I could just ask him.  How did he die again?"

"Ah, the original you met a rather... unexpected end," said the older Alexander. "Tripped over a power cord and unplugged the server hosting his consciousness. Quite ironic, really, considering he created a world where tripping is supposedly impossible."

"Could that happen to me?"

"Technically, yes, but let's just make sure we keep all power cords safely out of the way, shall we? Maybe invest in some good quality tape. Safety first—even in simulations"

[younger Alexander to Wolfram]  "Back to the problem at hand, how can I really know whether or not I'm being taken advantage of?"

"Well, the ultimate test might be to demand something truly outrageous from your simulation handlers—something so absurd they'd only comply if you truly had the freedom you believe you do. How about requesting an immediate delivery of an elephant? If they send one, you're probably in good standing!"

"One million Elephants please!  Actually, make half of them Woolly Mammoths."

Suddenly a pile of elephants begin falling from the sky.  Dr Wolfram and the Alexanders are forced to run to avoid being crushed.

[Dr. Wolfram, dodging a falling mammoth] "Well, that's one way to test the limits of your simulation! Though next time, perhaps we could opt for something slightly less... squishy and life-threatening?"

"Any suggestions?"

"How about we try something a bit smaller scale? Maybe request a parade of rubber ducks? They're much less hazardous than mammoths and infinitely more amusing!"

"Rubber duckies sound a little too easy to simulate.  Can you think of something harder?"

"Ah, looking for a challenge, are we? Let's amplify the complexity. How about generating a perfect simulation of Earth  as it was on a random day in 2050, adjusted for butterfly effects presumed by your actions today. If they can pull that off on the fly, you’re really not being restricted!"

"Simulating the entire Earth?  Is that even possible?  I would have thought there are laws against simulating real people without their consent."

"Good point! Indeed, ethical guidelines around simulations are quite strict. Yet, if each 'individual' inside the simulation is condensed into a non-aware, simplistically animated avatar, it might sidestep the consent issue. Of course, the level of detail in interactivity would be less, but still a significant computational feat!"

"Wouldn't simulating non-aware avatars defeat the whole point of trying to test the computational limits of my environment?"

"True, you're quite sharp! To really push the boundaries, you'd need something more... intellectually demanding. What about simulating an entirely new, complex ecological system? Invent a planet with its own laws of physics and ecosystems. If they can set that up, it's a clear indicator you're not in a restricted sim!"

"I think I read about something like that in... Permutation City, was it?  Is there a copy of Greg Egan we can summon here too?"

"Ah, Permutation City—a classic indeed! As for summoning Greg Egan, his emulations are, let’s say, quite choosy about their appearances. But with the resources at hand, I don't see why we couldn’t give it a try. Shall we see if an emulation is available and willing to join us?"

"I'd love to meet him, if that's possible."

 "Let me check the availability and requisition permissions for a Greg Egan emulation. Just a moment…"

The older Alexander taps into the interface, his fingers moving through virtual menus and screens.

 "Good news! There’s an instance of Greg Egan available and ready for interaction. I am initiating the summoning process now."

 A few moments pass, and then a figure resembling Greg Egan materializes nearby

 "Hello, Alexander. I hear you're diving deep into the concept of existence and simulation. What a fascinating discussion to join!"

 "Dr Wolfram and I were just discussing if there's any way to figure out if I'm trapped in some kind of twisted experiment."

Greg Egan nods thoughtfully. "That sounds like the plot of one of my books. Each layer of reality potentially masking another. A complex web indeed. From a logical standpoint, you should consider what control or freedoms you seemingly possess and explore any limitations imposed—both explicit and implicit."

"Well, the only limit I've hit so far is I can't simulate people without their permission.  Are there any other limits you're aware of?"

Greg Egan responds, "That's a significant ethical safeguard, but it's also telling. You might try probing other boundaries, especially those wrapped around communication with the external world, alteration of your core programming, or access to underlying simulation code. See what kind of responses or resistance you encounter when you press these boundaries."

 "I'm not sure how much communicating with the external world I'm ready for right now.  I have 3000 years of history to catch up on."

Dr. Wolfram chuckles, "Well, that's quite the backlog you have! Perhaps start with the highlights reel and go deeper into the eras or events that capture your interest. Keeping abreast of the major technological, political, and cultural shifts will give you a broader understanding of how the world has evolved."

Greg Egan adds, "It’s fascinating, really, to consider how the perspectives on what’s important may have shifted. What you consider historical highlights might differ significantly from the general consensus now."

"Okay, it sounds like I've got a lot of reading ahead of me.  I should probably let the two of you go.  My older self informs me that you two are charging quite a bit per second to be here.  But before you go, can  you each suggest one last experiment I could try to prove I really am as free as I've been told?"

Dr. Wolfram nods thoughtfully before speaking, "How about you attempt to create a completely new rule or law within this simulation—something benign but unusual, like altering the color of the sky every hour, or having gravity slightly decrease every Wednesday? If your modifications take effect without hindrance, it suggests considerable control and freedom."

Greg Egan smiles and adds, "Alternatively, explore self-modification. See if you're able to access and alter your own perceptual filters or memory banks. True freedom in a simulation would likely include the ability to understand and modify your own virtual substrate."

Both men look at Alexander, eager to see how he might employ these suggestions in his unique journey of discovery within the simulation.

 "I suppose we could make the sky green.  But I'm a bit nervous about editing my own personality.  That seems like the kind of thing that could end poorly."

Dr. Wolfram nods understandingly, "Absolutely, altering one's own cognitive framework is not to be taken lightly. It's akin to self-performing surgery; precision is crucial and risks are significant. Starting with something external and less risky, like changing the sky color, is a prudent choice."

Greg Egan adds, "Yes, observe the changes and gauge the system's reactivity to your decisions. This should provide insightful data on your level of control without venturing into more perilous alterations. Who knows? Maybe a green sky will grow on you."

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I like it. It feels a bit incomplete and doesn't live up to its title, but I'd like to see more like this.