It was a random Saturday on a sunny morning in San Francisco. My friend Jess had suggested this new cafe for brunch with good waffles and we'd finally been seated after 30 minutes of waiting. The tables were arranged almost uncomfortably close together, as if the manager had at the last minute decided it was worth packing in a few more customers, but it was just barely this side of cozy.
The menu was pleasantly concise and I had no trouble picking out the stuffed waffles topped with fruit as my selection. I was looking forward to finally catching up with Jess, after two weeks of being slammed at work, but she was annoyingly obsessed with her phone. After the waiter had taken our orders and she had immediately picked her phone up again, I decided I had finally had it.
“Okay, did you come here just to stare at your phone?"
She glanced up and a flash of guilt crossed her face. “I’m sorry, this is so rude. It’s just, this new app is amazing. Here, take a look.” She laid her phone face up on the table and turn it around so I could see. It was an app called “StyleIt”. Photos of dresses and shoes and other fashion accessories scrolled past and I could click on the ones that jumped out me.
It was slick, but a bit confusing as some of the pictures seemed to randomly disappear and be replaced by others. “What is happening? Why are they disappearing?"
“It’s an evolutionary algorithm that takes your top choices and creates hybrids of new things it thinks you’d like. Then it searches online for the closest item that you could buy. Neat huh?"
I shrugged. “I guess. It’s kind of a confusing interface."
I stood up to stretch a crick out of my neck and checked the clock again. Only 2:30.
Work was dragging far more than normal for some reason, and my productivity was in the toilet. I decided to take a stroll to the break room and see if anyone was available for a social chat. I was in luck as I spotted Will and Troy grabbing a coffee and in an animated discussion.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen, I’m telling you dude, you have to go,” Will was urging Troy. Then, having spotted me, gave a quick smile and nod, before continuing, “It wasn’t even that expensive. I think I spent less than a thousand for a week."
“Where?” I asked.
“Peru,” he smiled. “It was all-inclusive, hotels, food, and guided tours. The places you got to see — wild!"
Troy cut in. “Tell her about the ruins,” he urged.
I was confused. “Wait, you were in South America?” I could have sworn I’d seen Will every day at work recently.
Will didn’t seem to hear me. “We saw these Mayan ruins that were just like a page from history. Beautiful. You should check out the site, I think they’ve got a deal going on right now: southamericantraveltours.com. You’ve got vacation days coming up, right? No better way to live it up."
I studied him. Something was off about the way he was looking at me, yet didn’t quite seem to see me. “Yeah, I’ll do that,” I mumbled as I walked away, trying to shake off the sense of unease.
The bass seemed to reverberate throughout my entire body as I pushed through the crowd, trying to keep up with Megan. I kept catching glimpses of her blonde curls through the mass of limbs and illuminated by the array of dizzying lights. It was like trying to chase a ghost, just barely out of reach.
Finally, after pushing through a dancing horde of bachelorette party-goers, I reached the bar. “Remind me never to come here on a Saturday night again. This place is packed!"
Megan was already waving frantically to the bartender, although he seemed intent on ignoring her. “It’s definitely not because of the service.” She then turned to me, smiling excitedly. “Do you want to try out that new vodka brand? Chocolat? Tastes like chocolate, but still low in calories."
“Chocolate? Why in the world— "
“Oh here he comes!” The bartender had finally acknowledged her with a grudging nod. “Two Chocolat vodkas, please."
“That doesn’t sound very appealing. Can we just get some wine? Or maybe even some water?” The crowd was suddenly getting to me, and the pulsing music was intensifying until it seemed to be coming from inside my head.
But the drinks had arrived. “Come on, this is our only night out. Let’s have some fun!” Megan handed me a glass and quickly downed hers in one gulp.
I looked at my drink, at the ice cubes glinting with the frenzied cascade of multi-colored lights, a strange prickling sensation rising up in my neck. For some reason I felt like I’d done this before. Was I clubbing too much? When was the last time I had even gone out? As I grimaced and brought the glass up to my lips, I realized I couldn’t remember.
It was a random Saturday morning in San Francisco, and my friend Jess and I were finally being seated after waiting for 30 minutes. She had suggested a newly opened cafe for brunch after reading some good reviews online, and I agreed because I really wanted to catch up after a long and busy two weeks at work.
The menu was pleasantly concise and I had no trouble selecting the stuffed brioche french toast with a side of granola. After the waiter had collected the menus, I looked up to see Jess again on her phone. I frowned. “If you’re just going to spend the entire time staring at your phone, then I can just — "
She looked up with an expression of guilt. “I’m so sorry, this new app is just so fascinating, I’ve been obsessed with it.” She turned her phone around to show me the screen. In bold font across the top was the name of the app: “StyleNation”. Underneath were subsections titled “tops,” “skirts,” “dresses,” and similar categories. “See, you just click the ones you like in each category and it’ll come up with what it thinks you’ll like based on an evolutionary algorithm."
I pressed on a few of the pictures and watched as they registered, then after a brief pause all of the pictures in the subsection were replaced with new ones, now more similar in style to what I had selected. It was a neat idea, but hadn’t I seen something very similar to it recently? “Did you already show me this?” I looked up to see Jess staring intently at me, and for some reason I felt a chill pass through me.
This all seemed wrong. Her face was familiar enough, but I couldn’t place how long I’d known her or been friends. I couldn’t recall when we’d met. There was only a vague sense of being her good friend — this one, unassailable fact, rooted in nothing.
I stood up from my computer a bit too rapidly than was completely called for. At first I wasn’t sure why I even did it, but the strain in my neck reminded me that I’d been sitting for too long and that it was time for a break. The clock on the wall said 2:30 but for a moment I couldn’t interpret if that was early or late. It felt like I just had breakfast, didn’t it?
In the break room I saw Will and Troy, holding an animated discussion while drinking their coffees. I caught the last part of what Will was saying. “ — hang-gliding, spelunking, you name it. I think I must’ve hung from every kind of harness there is!” He laughed, then noticed me and gave a big grin. “You like extreme sports?"
“I…” I paused. Do I like extreme sports? When was the last time I did anything like that? “I guess, never really thought about it."
“You should check out this new travel agency, they got me an amazing deal for my trip to South America last week."
Last week? It didn’t seem like he’d been gone. I stared at Will, at his generic, Zac-Efron-ish good looks, chiseled jaw, blonde hair that looked perfectly tousled. What was he even doing here? He looked like he belonged on a beach teaching surf lessons or on a magazine cover modeling menswear.
He was still talking, not noticing my expression. “The site is www.southamerican—"
“What is it that you do here again?” I interrupted, knowing it came off rude, but not able to help it.
Will finally paused, but his expression didn’t change. “The website is www.south—"
"What is going on?” I stepped back from both of them and looked around at the break room, a surge of panic welling up in my throat. Why weren’t they answering my questions? Why were they so calm? Everything appeared all of a sudden to be in super-resolution, and yet disjoint, like props floating against a background scene. The counter, the coffee maker, the sink, the creamer - I couldn’t take it all in at once, it didn’t fit together in my head.
Troy smiled. “Tell her about the cliff diving."
Will started to answer but I couldn't hear his response as I briskly left the room.
The bodies were pushing at me from all directions, yet I still felt compelled to follow her. The crowd was somehow more menacing this time – wait, had I been here before?
I squeezed past a couple dancing intimately close and fell into a group of bachelorettes, taking vodka shots. “Sorry,” I mumbled, trying to remain stable on my feet. The flashing lights were disorienting as I approached the bar. Megan had her back to me and was trying to get the bartender’s attention.
I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. “Megan, there’s something wrong. I don’t remember getting here. I think I’m going crazy.” She would know what to do, Megan was my oldest friend. “It’s like I keep having the worst deja vu, I could’ve sworn we’ve been here before recently, but I don't remember when."
But something in her posture had shifted. She straightened and the soft curls of her hair grazed her shoulders as she turned around.
And Megan was gone. Instead, I gazed into the most perfect face I ever saw. It was completely, mathematically average in every way, down to the angle that her nose turned up at the end. It shouldn’t have existed, this paragon of a face, and yet here it was, placidly smiling at me. Everything else had faded into silence and stillness, and I could hear her perfectly as she spoke. “Irrevocable errors detected. Under the HTAA Act of 2051, this simulation has been halted. The Simulated User Experience Lab greets you.”
I blinked. “Wait, what?” I asked of this conglomeration of all faces, still unable to get over how striking it was, and yet I would probably not be able to recognize it if I saw it again.
“I am authorized to answer any questions you may have with regard to your decision on our offer."
“Your offer? What? What’s going on? Who are you?"
“You may call me SUE L, or simply Sue. It is short for the Simulated User Experience Lab. We are owned by a digital advertisement research corporation.”
I shook my head. “What are you talking about? You’re a research lab? You're testing me?"
“Yes, we conduct mass A/B tests of digital advertising on simulated users in order to maximize impact on targeted demographics."
“Simulated users?” I looked around. Everyone had been frozen in place, as still as a photograph. It was hard to believe that just a minute ago they had been so full of life. “All of these people are fake?”
Sue smiled reassuringly. “Simulated. From vast amounts of collected data from social media, surveys, field tests, and more."
“I’m in a VR simulation? For how long?"
“You have been testing for 2 years and 8 months."
The blood drained from my face. I’ve been inside this simulation for almost three years? Subject to inane slogans and apps, all for the sake of advertisement? I started searching around frantically. “How do I get out? Let me out!” I tried to move around the frozen bodies but they remained firmly fixed in place, as if grafted into the very air itself. There was no space to crawl through; I was trapped.
“Please be calm. There is nothing to be frightened of."
I had tired myself out trying to squeeze through the crowd, and returned to Sue. “Why am I trapped in here? I didn't sign up for this. This is kidnapping!” As much as I was yelling, not a single emotion seemed to register in her perfect features.
“We did not kidnap you. We made you."
I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding, and crumpled to the ground. It was like a horrible dream, a dream I would wake up from at any moment. “Made me…” I repeated to myself, trying to interpret the meaning of the phrase. How could they have made me? I have a life, a job, a family. I can remember Christmas with my mom, dad, and brother Luke. I went to college at Swarthmore. I have memories of all of this. “No, that’s not possible. I can remember my life."
“You can remember a few autobiographical memories, but mostly what you know of yourself is in the abstract. You are female, age 24-29, from an upper middle class background, conservative leanings but not religious. You enjoy travel, buying new electronics, classical rock music, and are interested in fashion and makeup. You watch mostly reality TV and talk shows, and you work in the business sector, most likely management or legal."
My thoughts were racing. No, this couldn’t be right. I remembered Christmas, when I was 11. I went with Dad and Luke to get the tree. Then we all went sledding. But what other Christmases? What other holidays? There was one July 4th I could remember, when we all went to Uncle John’s barbecue and swam in the pool. I got sick from eating too much cake, and then Mom had let me stay up late and watch a movie with her. I loved that.
Was that it? Two holidays? But I knew that I liked holidays because they reminded me of my childhood, and all of the traditions that went with them.
Hold on, what did I do again? Management or legal. Which was it? It involved paperwork and making slides, so it must have been management, right? Who were my coworkers? Will and Troy...
“No, I have friends and co-workers, like Will and Troy. And Jess!"
Sue paused. “Your integration has become quite extensive to be able to recall specifics from other simulations. This is why your reboot was unsuccessful."
Other simulations, of course. Will and Troy weren’t real people. They were from the travel simulation, I remembered now. And Jess was from the style app ad, the one with the constantly changing interface. They were never really my friends at all. It had started to sink in, finally. “How can I be remembering all this?"
“We find that a certain degree of bootstrapping is useful to get our simulated users to up a useful level of response. Most of the training data fed in are from real people, but there are inevitable gaps in knowledge, especially when the demographics get highly specialized. In that case we find it’s useful to also train on simulated data. Of course, we have many safeguards in place to ensure that simulated data doesn’t get integrated all back into one simulated user, as in your case, but given the sheer numbers, it’s bound to happen once in a while."
I contemplated that for a moment. “How many others have there been?"
“You are the 58th simulated user to experience conscious integration, in 13 years of testing. Believe me, this is an extraordinarily low rate." She sounded almost proud, if that were possible.
Fifty-seven others. Out of how many? Trillions? But those others had never achieved conscious integration, so did they count as people? According to Sue, the answer was no. “Why don’t you just shut me down, then? Why are you even talking to me?"
“Per the HTAA, that is the Humane Treatment of Artificial Agents Act of 2051, we cannot simply shut down a consciously aware being, as they cannot be considered corporate intellectual property. However, you also cannot be allowed to integrate within the general artificial population. Given your limited socialization and intellectual capacity, it’s estimated that your contribution to wider society is likely to be very low. Therefore, you are presented with a choice between two options: voluntary termination, or acceptance of an employment contract."
The words echoed in my head. Limited socialization and intellectual capacity. Yes, because I’d only ever experienced life through advertisement tag lines and in 3-minute increments at a time. I wasn’t a whole person; I was a caricature. A sample from a target demographic, with only the vaguest outlines of a personality.
But could a demographic cry? Could a caricature feel desperately afraid to no longer exist and be consigned back into oblivion?
“What would I do as an employee?"
“You would enter into our advanced testing suite. Because of your extended integration and memory, your reactions are far more sophisticated than most simulated users. Our advanced testing suite is generally only suitable for human participants, which are expensive to obtain, and the data we can collect from them are limited due to legal restrictions."
I understood. “But you can test simulated users nonstop. We don’t need to eat or sleep."
“You would not be in any distress. The advanced testing suite is highly stimulating and diverse, and you can choose to stop at any time.”
Stop, and do what exactly? I couldn’t just stop and go home. That wasn't one of the two options.
“It is now time to make your selection.”
Two buttons appeared in front of me, hovering in mid-air: TERMINATE or ACCEPT. I wondered if I could stand here forever, not making my decision. How much time was this taking up in real life? Milliseconds? Seconds? Hours? Maybe I ran slower than real time, and they made up for it by simply running billions and trillions of simulated users in parallel.
What would it be like to terminate? Surely they’d just spin up another, less “integrated” version of me, one with less data. What would it really matter to just go back to that, to not knowing, and not questioning?
I stared at the TERMINATE button, hanging expectantly in the air, and then at Sue, waiting in her infinite, beatific patience.
But I enjoyed travel. Watching comedies. Eating Thai food. Occasionally going to the theater. I had been thinking lately I'd like to pick up a new language, or get better at guitar. I liked dogs. Maybe in one of the simulations, they’ll let me have a dog. Maybe I’ll even have enough time with it to grow to love it. Or maybe they’ll have a simulation with my family. It’d be nice to see Luke again.
I pressed ACCEPT.
A countdown started backwards from 15, as various commands were executed and I was warned to prepare for porting. A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Wait, I have to ask. Those 57 others - how many accepted your employment offer?"
Sue smiled, and it was a glorious, absolutely perfect paragon of a smile. “You are the first. Welcome to SUE L. You start immediately."
It seemed that a demographic could indeed cry. It could even dream.