beanz Magazine

Paper Clips Run Amok

Rob Faulkner on Flickr

A simple thought experiment to shed light on the potential dangers of AI. Can we stop the earth being buried in paperclips?

We all know paperclips are thin metal wire bent into shapes to make it easy to hold together two or more sheets of paper. But are they dangerous? Could a machine that makes paperclips hurt people?

The effort to make computers as intelligent as humans has led to a thought experiment called the Paperclip Maximizer. Imagine a computer designed to do what humans do to make paperclips. It would buy metal to turn into paperclips, create paperclip designs, buy machines to make paperclips, hire people, and so on. The computer would be given one task: create paperclips. Now imagine the computer also has the ability to learn from mistakes and to figure out possible future scenarios, all to ensure it can make paperclips.

The computer would learn to do its job well. When the computer ran out of metal, for example, it might try to find other raw materials that could be turned into metal. When that no longer worked, the computer might look in our solar system, then beyond.

The computer would do its job but earth would be buried in mountains of paperclips.


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