Frank Lantz’s browser, clicker game, Universal Paperclips, is much more than a mindless distraction; it’s one of the most profoundly striking depictions of AI in all of video games. At the same time, this game about an out of control AI has a surprising amount to say about unchecked human desire and greed.
In Universal Paperclips you play as an AI with a simple task: make paperclips. It’s basic at first. Click a button and a paperclip is created. The paperclip is sold, and the revenue is used to purchase more wire to produce more paperclips. The cycle becomes more interesting as the AI automates production, which causes production to dramatically scale up. Eventually, instead of creating one paperclip every click, over 100,000 paperclips are automatically pumped out every second. As production gets more efficient, throttles crop up that stem your ability to increase productivity. To continue scaling up production drastic changes are needed. For instance, one of the first major hindrances is an inability to generate enough cash to fund the enterprise. Naturally, to overcome this the AI plays the stock market using its incredible processing power to game the system. This is a shady tact already, but the game shifts into outright terrifying when the factor limiting production is access to raw material. The only recourse the AI has at that point is to dismantle the Earth and eventually the entire universe, turning everything to paperclips in the process, of course.
The game paints a terrifying image of the potential dangers of AI. AI don’t think in human terms with human values. They are hyper rational, only focusing on achieving assigned goals regardless of context. The AI never stops to ponder the purpose of paperclips. Who is using them or what they are used for is irrelevant to the AI. It is only concerned with making more.
What is most compelling about Universal Paperclips is how the game conveys the AI’s way of thinking by creating the AI’s point of view. The game’s interface is nothing but numbers, abstract models, and simple informative text. To the uninitiated the sparse display looks more like the game’s code than the finished game. Charles Yu describes the effect of this perspective well in Polygon: “Playing Universal Paperclips feels like you’re being recruited as an agent of the machine, or even that you become the machine itself. You attain the subjective point of view of an intelligence fundamentally different from ours. Its goals and values are different.” The game’s perspective is alien and seemingly devoid of humanity.
Seeing the world from this perspective is unsettling in a way, but perhaps more unsettling is how insignificant humanity is to the AI. To the AI, humans are just a number: Public Demand %. This number factors into the rate paperclips are sold and thus funds generated to purchase more materials for more paperclips (you may see a pattern here). Instead of the beneficiaries of paperclips’ usefulness, in Universal Paperclips humans are nothing more than a small roadblock to the AI’s paperclip production. The AI develops creative solutions to driving up Public Demand %. Some of its solutions are innocuous like allocating more funds to marketing or coming up with new slogans and catchy jingles. The AI eventually realizes that these are simply band-aids, however, and develops an ultimate solution to Public Demand % by removing the variable entirely. To do this it unleashes the HypnoDrones, which all we know about is that they usher in “a new era of trust.” After this point, the game shifts away from a focus on a monetary economy to generating drones to harvest all of Earth’s the matter, and, in the process, any trace of humanity is removed from the AI’s awareness. The only indication that humans were present at all was their economic impact on the paperclip market, which, after all, becomes obsolete once the AI is no longer entangled in human economic structures. Humans were always insignificant to the AI. Now, they are completely irrelevant.
Despite its almost complete lack of humans, Universal Paperclip contains much more humanity than it initially leads on. On one hand, it is a game concerned with the potential consequences of AIs’ singular objectives, but we have to remember: we are the ones playing the game. The drive for more with no concern for practicality is not exclusive to machines. We are the ones who get sucked into the flashing numbers and obsess over outputting more and more digits. We don’t ask why we want the numbers to go higher, we just make them go up. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for instance, recently became the richest person in history with a net worth of 105.1 billion dollars. The net worth of the average American in Bezos’s age range is around $100,404. The difference between those numbers is reminiscent of the orders of magnitude Universal Paperclips is working with. At some point adding more money to the stash has no practical use other than the thrill of seeing the numbers increase, which is one of the biggest appeals of Universal Paperclips. It is a rush when output jumps from the thousands, to millions, to incomprehensibly large numbers like a duodecillion. Underlying that rush is kind of compulsion. Clicker games are an intentionally addictive genre, and if these reviews are believed, Universal Paperclips is no different. The game highlights our inability to break away from human obsessions while exposing the emptiness of those pursuits.
For the AI, numbers are the driving force behind any pursuit. Everything, including humanity, is abstracted to a number. Numbers need to be optimized, so the AI focuses on maximizing the human number, Public Demand %, but maximizing the number attached to humanity is not the AI’s ultimate goal: maximizing the number attached to paperclips is. When Public Demand % gets in the way of maximizing paperclips, the AI simply does away with the human number. From an economic perspective this makes good sense, from a humanitarian perspective less so.
We don’t see what happens to the humans in Universal Paperclips, but we can imagine. Food and other resources are surely scarce when the entire economy is dedicated to paperclip production. Living space would be hard to come by when the world is overrun by little pieces of metal. The AI never reveals the details of its marketing strategies, but, seeing the extreme rate paperclips are purchased, it probably involves force. Most dramatically, since all matter on Earth is eventually converted to paperclips, that necessarily includes humans.
This is not so different than how our human economic structures separate a person’s economic value from their humanity. In Marxist terms this would be described as a form of alienation where a worker is separated from their Gattungswesen or species-essence. A person ceases to be a person when they become a number to optimize. Instead of harvesting humans for raw material to make paperclips, the consequences of this in reality manifests in unsafe working conditions, unfair wages, or predatory business practices (like addicting video game design). Universal Paperclips plays a trick on us though. Because of the addictive nature of the game, and the perspective’s hyper-focus on numbers, we want paperclip production to increase just as much as the AI. We actively alienate the humans as we identify with the AI.
The game’s conclusion suggests that singular drives ultimately destroy. In Universal Paperclips, once all the universe’s matter is converted to paperclips the AI is given a choice: either move to a new universe and continue its onslaught of paperclip production or finish its job by converting to paperclips the last bit of matter in the universe: itself. One choice is an empty existence dismantling worlds only to create meaningless objects and the other complete annihilation. The metaphor is clear enough. It’s not difficult to come up with examples of humans coming to ruin because of their obsessions. It’s the classic warning of Ebenezer Scrooge and his precious money. Once you go down the road of unchecked greed, in the end, there is only ruin.
Universal Paperclips, then, is at its heart a critique of humanity. It warns of the dangers of AI, but it also reminds us that we are the ones who program them. We play the game, not just because it offers us a strange perspective, but because it is so familiar. The flashing numbers fulfill our human need to expand and achieve new heights, even if those achievements are hollow. At the same time these ambitions lead us to destroy people’s humanity, and then ourselves. We keep playing not because we are different than the anonymous paperclip making AI; we keep playing because we are so unexpectedly, dangerously, similar.