There’s a well-known thought experiment in the world of artificial intelligence that poses a simple, but potentially very scary, question: what if we asked a super-intelligent AI to make paperclips?
This may not sound terrifying at first, but as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom (who first described the parable) explains, it all depends on how well we’ve trained the AI. If we’ve given it common sense, it might ask us: “How many paperclips do you want?” If it doesn’t know to ask, it might just make paperclips forever. And, if it’s a super-intelligent AI that we’ve accidentally forgotten to program with any human ethics or values, it might decide that the most efficient way to make paperclips is to wipe out humanity and terraform the planet into one giant paperclip-making factory.
Sound fun? Well good, because now there’s a game about it.
Designed by Frank Lantz, director of the New York University Game Center, Paperclips might not be the sort of title you’d expect about a rampaging AI. It’s free to play, it lives in your browser, and all you have to look at is numbers. (Though trust me, you’ll learn to love them.) It’s an idle clicker game — one that draws on humanity’s apparently bottomless desire to click buttons and watch numbers go up. Think Cookie Clicker or Egg Inc, but dedicated to paperclips.
You’ll start off making them the old fashioned way: one clip for one click. But pretty soon you’ll be purchasing autoclippers to do the work for you while you turn your attentions to running an algorithmic hedge fund, then building a quantum computer, and then (much later) exploring the known Universe in search of new matter to turn into more and more paperclips. How to play is pretty self-explanatory, but here are some tips if you’re getting stuck:
- Paperclips is essentially a game about balance and efficiency. You have to leave the game alone for long stretches of time, yes, but you also need to be sure you’re not wasting resources while you do so. Keep an eye on your supply chain to make sure there are no bottlenecks, and be on the lookout for any unused capacity that can be turned to your ultimate goal: making those sweet, sweet clips.
- Play at least until you get hypnodrones. When you unlock these, the game really opens up onto a new level. You thought you were making paperclips before? Hoo buddy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
- At some point you will run into a wall that you can’t optimize your way past. You may think you’ve got to the end of the game (for example, when you’ve turned all available matter in the Universe into paperclips — a logical endpoint, sure) but there’s more to do. Unfortunately, getting past these barriers often requires patience, and sometimes you’ll have to leave the game for hours to get onto the next level.
- Don’t start playing if you’ve got anything important to do today. Or tomorrow.
All in all, the game made me think that if the paperclip maximizer doomsday scenario does ever come to pass, it will, at least, be pleasingly ironic. We go to the trouble of creating super-intelligence and it responds by cauterizing the Universe in the name of office supplies. There have been worse metaphors for the human condition. Plus, if we teach the AI to enjoy making paperclips (and some say these sorts of human-analogous incentives will be necessary to create true thinking machines) then at least it’ll be having a fun time.
Like you, it’ll have fun watching those numbers getting bigger.
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