Oh, fragile human mind, how quickly you succumb to the allure of the clicker game. I began Paperclips – a game about being a paperclip-producing artificial intelligence - with the intention of “taking a quick look”. I am now a slave to the rhythmic economy of the Universal Paperclips company. As always, numbers go up, but like all the best clicker games, such as Cookie Clicker and Spaceplan, there’s a sinister and funny underbelly in which to become hopelessly lost.
It works like any clicker. Start out by pressing “Make paperclip” over and over until new gizmos and options appear, like the ability to buy an “AutoClipper” or more processing power. Eventually, strange new options become available. Would you like to invest some computational power into an “algorithmically generated poem”? Or perhaps you’d like an upgrade that gains the ability to “interpret and understand human language”. That sounds useful and absolutely harmless. And what about getting access to world trade markets? An investment portfolio would help increase profits.
Next thing you know, you’re buying a “Harmonics” upgrade which uses “neuro-resonant frequencies to influence consumer behaviour”, or buying some "HypnoDrones" which are described as "autonomous aerial brand ambassadors". I clicked on the former and was told “marketing is now 5 times more effective”. The public demand for paperclips went up to an all-time high of 886%. I cannot tell what this means for the world at large. I am just a computer.
Like Cookie Clicker before it, this is a darkly comic tale hidden inside an openly manipulative clicker game. You soon learn that, as the machine, you care nothing for external circumstances. You don’t know truly know what’s happening to the planet beyond your paperclip-addled neural net, but you can hazard a guess. Maybe society is collapsing due to an inexplicable plague of paperclip mania. Or perhaps humanity has slowly become subsumed and incorporated into the manufacturing and consumption process of this AI, to the point where it keeps them alive just enough to buy endless amounts of paperclips.
It’s made by Frank Lantz of the NYU Game Center, creator of the puzzle game for iGizmos Drop7. (That was published by Zynga, another recent example from history of an omniscient, ever-expanding machine without humanity or self-control). I asked Lantz why AI are so inherently frightening.
"Because they are like us but not us," he said. "Because they blur the line between objects-in-the-world and 'beings'. They remind us that maybe we, too, are just collections of matter operating according to deterministic cause-and-effect rules.
"Because they sneak into our room at night and steal our prescription medicine."
You can play Paperclips here.