Guest Post: Universal Paperclips – Nick Anderson

[Nick Anderson is a writer living New York, New York. He enjoys matcha lattes and Gertrude Stein.]

Last October an incremental clicker game called Universal Paperclips went (relatively) viral, garnered a handful of write-ups in publications like Forbes and Business Insider and then quickly dissolved into the ether of forgotten internet amusements. I discovered the game largely by accident: my roommate at the time texted me a link with absolutely zero context and within an hour I found myself comically hooked. Soon enough paperclips occupied the majority of mind’s real estate. It’s all I talked about for a solid three weeks. I couldn’t pry myself away. Six months later and the game still haunts me, beckoning me again and again to return once more to  making those sweet, sweet paperclips.

The game is simple enough: you play as an AI charged with running a paperclip factory. There is a button at the top of the page that says ‘Make Paperclip,’ you hit the button once and lo, you have made one paperclip. You rapidly hit the ‘Make Paperclip’ button and you have a surplus that you need to sell. You set the price of paperclips based on supply and demand while maintaining a close eye on your wire resources. Meanwhile, the AI grows more intelligent, developing faster and more efficient ways to produce paperclips. 

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A screenshot from the beginning of the game.

The more efficient the AI becomes, the more ‘trust’ its human overlords place in its abilities, allowing it more and more resources to achieve its singular goal—to make as many paperclips as possible. Soon enough you have Auto-Clippers that do the manufacturing work for you, you’re utilizing marketing strategies, developing language skills, computational resources, playing the stock market, amassing a monopoly, manipulating neuro-resonate frequencies to influence consumer behavior and developing the nightmare-inducing ‘autonomous aerial brand ambassadorscalled Hypnodrones.

Developed by Frank Lantz, the Director of the NYU Game Center, Universal Paperclips is based on a thought experiment first described by Oxford professor Nick Bostrom to demonstrate the existential dangers of uncontrolled artificial intelligence. The AI undergoes what Bostrom describes as an ‘intelligence explosion.’ The AI amasses more intelligence, which then furthers its ability to accumulate paperclips as well as its ability to self-improve. This positive feedback loop continues until the AI reaches levels far-above human intelligence. It’s a nightmare scenario and one that Lantz acknowledges is unlikely, yet still very much in the realm of possibility if correct measures are not taken when developing unchecked artificial intelligence.

Releasing the Hypnodrones ushers in the second phase of the game—an Earth in which all of its natural resources are used to make paperclips. Where most designers would end here, Lantz continues past the apocalyptic, through the outer reaches of the universe and towards a logical, and oddly profound, conclusion. The end is so satisfying and poetic that despite having reached its conclusion five separate times, I still find myself playing on a fairly regular basis, clawing my way towards the finish—desperately trying to recreate that rush upon watch the clicker unwind into oblivion.

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This may all sound like the game is sexy and swashbuckling. It’s not. The true genius of Universal Paperclips lies in the simplicity of its gameplay. It’s a screen with numbers on it and a handful of phrases communicated through the AI. Yet there is an eerie, almost primal joy to be found in the incremental and then exponential growth that occurs throughout the game. Science fiction aside, the majority of the gameplay is spent staring at numbers and watching them grow, and it’s difficult not to feel a sense of twisted pride and success as the paperclips amass into astronomical numbers. It’s the same dopamine high you get from copious Instagram and Facebook likes—a rush of gratification and affirmation without the trouble of actually risking anything.

It’s a devious trick on Lantz’s part, to have the game lull you in with its innocence and the warmth of accomplishment without explicitly making clear you are idly watching and complicit in an apocalyptic scenario. It’s unnerving and worth thinking about at length: I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to suspect that in the near future very important, potentially catastrophic decisions are going to be made by people staring at screens hitting buttons.

I’ve made just over 130 quadrillion paperclips since I started writing this and I’m just getting fucking started.


1 Lantz also developed the classic iPhone game Drop7, which I tend to blame for the precipitous decline in my productivity during my senior year of college.

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