It’s Friday. You’ve been working far too hard in your real job and you need a break. What kind of break? The kind of break where you fall hopelessly into the black hole of running a virtual paper clip company. It’s beautiful. Trust us.
Around a week ago when it was making the social media rounds, we came across an in-browser game that presented itself as an incredibly simple and one dimensional little time waster—Universal Paperclips—but it’s so much more.
After sinking considerable time into the experience (and enjoying every minute) we’re paying it forward by getting you (enjoyably) addicted too.
The premise seems so simple: click a button, ala the classic browser time waster Cookie Clicker, make a paper clip. Click a button, make a paper clip. Click a button, make a paper clip.
People buy your paper clips! You buy wire to make more. Adjust the price! Sell more paper clips! Click the button!
Maybe the novelty of that would wear off quickly for most people, but like all truly addictive time wasters, the possibilities at Universal Paperclips quickly expand.
With a few thousand paper clips out the door the options begin to unfold before you. Once you hit a million paper clips or so, suddenly you’re not just making paper clips but running an investment engine and enmeshed in the game’s decision trees.
It doesn’t stop there, not by a long shot, but if you want to truly experience the surreal roller coaster ride that is your ascension to power at Universal Paperclips without any spoilers, then you should absolutely stop reading here and jump right into playing.
Need a moment to contemplate whether you want the joy of self discovery or the sweet satisfaction of immediate spoilers? You can scroll past these delightfully colorful paper clips while you ponder if you want to know the real secrets of Universal Paperclips.
Is the game just about paper clips? Oh no. The underpinning of the game are deeper than even the greatest pile of paper clips you could ever hope to manufacture.
The creative kernel for the game comes from the musings of Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, a professor at Oxford University best known for his work on existential risks, super intelligence, simulations, and the ethics of artificial intelligence and human enhancement.
Bostrom, as a thought exercise, once proposed an example of how an unfettered AI engine could, when given a simple and seemingly harmless directive, ultimately destroy humanity. What harmless task did he propose? Producing paper clips.
In the 2003 publication “Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence” he wrote:
Suppose we have an AI whose only goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. The AI will realize quickly that it would be much better if there were no humans because humans might decide to switch it off. Because if humans do so, there would be fewer paper clips. Also, human bodies contain a lot of atoms that could be made into paper clips. The future that the AI would be trying to gear towards would be one in which there were a lot of paper clips but no humans.
And that, dear readers, is where the single click that produces your first paper clip leads—from global domination of an industry to the stars all the way to the eventual death of the universe and the extinction of life and sentience itself. But, along the way you get to see some neat stuff and make a few paper clips, so it’s more than worth the sacrifice.