Universal Paperclips – Game Review

By Barath S. (L&T RBG)

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.

Around a month ago, when it was making the social media rounds, I came across an in-browser game (now available as an app for Android and iOS) that presented itself as an incredibly simple and one dimensional little time waster—Universal Paperclips

Designed by Frank Lantz, director of the New York University Game Center, Universal Paperclips might not be the sort of title you’d expect about a rampaging AI. It’s an idle clicker game, it’s free to play, it lives in your browser, and all you have to look at is numbers.

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. Nick Bostrom, as a thought experiment, 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.

This may not sound terrifying at first, but as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom explains in the 2003 publication “Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence”, 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.

And that is exactly 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.

The premise seems so simple:

Click a button, 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. And this surreal roller coaster ride doesn’t stop there, not by a long shot.

How to play is pretty self-explanatory, but here are some tips if you’re getting stuck, given by verge.com:

  • Paperclips is essentially a game about balance and efficiency. You have to leave the game alone for long stretches of time, 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.