A game about making paperclips has gone viral, and it’s a sly nod to a famous thought experiment about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence.
The game, as described by Business Insider’s Matt Weinberger (one of the many staffers at Business Insider, myself included, who have become quickly addicted) is fairly straightforward: You are in charge of making as many paperclips as possible. As you progress and sell paperclips, you unlock various upgrades that make the process of paperclip-making ever more efficient and automated, until the game is basically playing itself.
The idea of an ever-more efficient automated paperclip factory has a history in the world of philosophers and futurists contemplating the dangers and possibilities of a “technological singularity” in which artificially intelligent machines rapidly outpace human abilities.
In 2003, Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper titled “Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence,” in which he discusses what could happen if humanity creates a “superintelligent” machine capable of quickly improving itself.
The paper discusses some of the pluses and minuses of such an entity. On the plus side, a benevolent superintelligent machine would be able to solve all of humanity’s problems, potentially ushering in a utopian golden age of health and prosperity for all. On the minus side, a malevolent superintelligence would be able to crush our species more efficiently than we could remove an ant-hill.
- YouTube/”Ex Machina”
While the latter scenario has been explored innumerable times in science fiction – “Terminator,” “The Matrix,” and Harlan Ellison’s classic “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” to name a few – one of Bostrom’s key insights in the paper is that a superintelligence wouldn’t have to be actively opposed to humanity to present an existential risk. Instead, a superintelligence with a very un-humanlike psyche and poorly-defined goals might not realize that it’s causing immesurable harm to its creators.
This brings us back to our friendly browser game. The example Bostrom gives of a non-malevolent but still extinction-causing superintelligence is none other than a relentlessly self-improving paperclip maker that lacks an explicit overarching sense of being pro-human (emphasis ours):
“The risks in developing superintelligence include the risk of failure to give it the supergoal of philanthropy… Another way for it to happen is that a well-meaning team of programmers make a big mistake in designing its goal system. This could result, to return to the earlier example, in a superintelligence whose top goal is the manufacturing of paperclips, with the consequence that it starts transforming first all of earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities… We need to be careful about what we wish for from a superintelligence, because we might get it.”
So, while you’re having fun improving your browser-based paperclip enterprise, remember that you’re essentially simulating the total extinction and eradication of humanity and everything it’s ever created. Enjoy!