Filtered for escaping the simulation

10.03, Thursday 22 Sep 2022


The Total Perspective Vortex.

… it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation - every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

Seeing it is horrific: the Total Perspective Vortex can annihilate a man’s soul!

Zaphod Beeblebox is put into the Vortex in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams, the sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

He opened the door of the box and stepped in.

Inside the box he waited.

After five seconds there was a click, and the entire Universe was there in the box with him.

And… Zaphod survives.

IT TURNS OUT that Zaphod never actually went into the real Vortex.

Instead, earlier in the story, he had unwittingly stepped into a simulated universe, entirely identical to this one (almost).

[Zarniwoop] put the briefcase down and sat in another chair.

“I am glad you followed instructions,” he said, “I was a bit nervous that you might have left my office by the door rather than the window. Then you would have been in trouble.”

Zaphod shook his heads at him and burbled.

“When you entered the door of my office, you entered my electronically synthesized Universe,” he explained, “if you had left by the door you would have been back in the real one. The artificial one works from here.”

He patted the briefcase smugly.

Zaphod glared at him with resentment and loathing.

“What’s the difference?” he muttered.

“Nothing,” said Zarniwoop, “they are identical. Oh – except that I think the Frogstar Fighters are grey in the real Universe.”

The other difference is that Zaphod is able to survive the Total Perspective Vortex in Zarniwoop’s simulated universe.

(It’s quite the get-out-of-jail-free card to play. I’d be up for seeing more retconned synthesised universes in other stories. Maybe it will displace the “yet it was all just a dream” trope someday.)


Remember that bug in Xerox scanners that sometimes silently replaced numbers in PDF documents to make them compress better?

The wildly powerful - but, it turned out, dangerously inaccurate - compression format is called JBIG2.

The JBIG2 format is actually a primitive computer language and, from these basic parts, it is possible to implement a virtual computer which is then run while the PDF is being decompressed.

And, since you’re now running a full-blown computer inside the bit of your phone that is responsible for decompressing images, you can write a program that breaks its way out of that system and hacks your phone from the inside.

From Google’s Project Zero lab, this is an insane and detailed breakdown of how simply receiving an image as a text message could result in your phone being hacked.

JBIG2 doesn’t have scripting capabilities, but when combined with a vulnerability, it does have the ability to emulate circuits of arbitrary logic gates operating on arbitrary memory. So why not just use that to build your own computer architecture and script that!? That’s exactly what this exploit does. Using over 70,000 segment commands defining logical bit operations, they define a small computer architecture with features such as registers and a full 64-bit adder and comparator which they use to search memory and perform arithmetic operations. It’s not as fast as Javascript, but it’s fundamentally computationally equivalent.

The bootstrapping operations for the sandbox escape exploit are written to run on this logic circuit and the whole thing runs in this weird, emulated environment created out of a single decompression pass through a JBIG2 stream. It’s pretty incredible, and at the same time, pretty terrifying.


Back in 2003, Nick Bostrom suggested that we may be living in a computer simulation.

He summarises his argument: looking into the future, we find that there would be vastly many more such simulated minds than there would be non-simulated minds running on organic brains – and, by weight of numbers, you and I are more likely to be simulated minds than actual ones.

Elon Musk is convinced (Vice):

“There’s a one in billions chance [we’re in] base reality,” he said. …

“I’ve had so many simulation discussions it’s crazy,” Musk said. “It got to the point where every discussion was the AI or simulation conversation and my brother and I finally agreed we would ban such conversations if we were ever in a hot tub because it really kills the magic.”

If we are in a simulation, could we get out? There are people working on it. This throwaway snippet…

Many people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with the simulation hypothesis, the argument that what we experience as reality is in fact fabricated in a computer; two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.

…but that was 6 years ago and I haven’t heard of anything since.

It’s intriguing to imagine how breakout might occur.

There seem to be three main avenues:

  • Observe an inconsistency that proves that we are in a simulation, e.g. a feature of the universe that should correspond with the laws of physics as understood, but manifests in a way that shows that the simulation machine is conserving resources. e.g. we get to Proxima Centauri and it turns out the star is just a big painting on cardboard, that kind of thing only more subtle. (How to use the observation to break out is left an exercise for the reader.)
  • Do something so appealing or unusual that the Simulation Runners are motivated to intervene.
  • Hack our way out – taking advantage of the fact that there is a computational substrate to our simulated universe, cause a buffer overflow or race condition or out of bounds error, or something, and break out to the containing machine. e.g. is it possible to construct some kind of in-memory data structure (being, perhaps: a structure in our physical universe) that somehow triggers a parse error and is read as code? Could we run our own programs on the simulator?

It’s odd, imagining that I might be a document, and further imagining that there might be a specific thought I may one day have (thoughts being physical structures, according to Hebb’s rule) that could prise open an escape hatch from the simulation sandbox.


It is possible to reprogram Super Mario from inside Super Mario. Like, it’s possible to glitch Super Mario to write data into system memory, and then glitch it again to execute that data as code. So here’s a video of using code injection to run Flappy Bird inside Super Mario (YouTube). They first inject a 26 byte bootloader, using that to write Mario’s x-coordinate to memory on a spinjump, and that allows reliably loading a much larger payload. The whole process is WILD. Um. So something like that but IRL?


Bostrom, B. N. (2003). Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Philosophical Quarterly, 53(211), 243-255.


The Aleph (Wikipedia), a short story by Borges (1945). PDF here.

The author meets someone who has found an Aleph.

He explained that an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all other points.

It’s downstairs.

“It’s in the cellar under the dining room,” he went on …

So they go and see it.

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America …


In April 2003 at a party in San Francisco, after a particularly lengthy run-up, we managed to manifest the Aleph, an actual centre of the universe, a single point in space and time in which all else is contained, infinity hanging in the air, there for the taking, right in the middle of our group.

Reader: I ate it.

More posts tagged:
Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.