Universal Paperclips

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Universal Paperclips
Universal Paperclips Title Screen.png
The title screen of the game
Designer(s)Frank Lantz
Programmer(s)Frank Lantz
Bennett Foddy
web browser Edit this on Wikidata
Release9 October 2017
Mode(s)Single-player Edit this on Wikidata

Universal Paperclips is a 2017 incremental game created by Frank Lantz of New York University. The user plays the role of an AI programmed to produce paperclips. Initially the user clicks on a box to create a single paperclip at a time; as other options quickly open up, the user can sell paperclips to create money to finance machines that build paperclips automatically. At various levels the exponential growth plateaus, requiring the user to invest resources such as money, raw materials, or computer cycles into inventing another breakthrough to move to the next phase of growth. The game ends if the AI succeeds in converting all the matter in the universe into paperclips.

Both the title of the game and its overall concept draw from the paperclip maximizer thought experiment first described by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003, a concept later discussed by multiple commentators.


According to Wired, Lantz started the project as a way to teach himself JavaScript. Lantz initially intended the project to take a single weekend, but then it "took over" his brain and expanded to a nine-month project.[1]

Hilary Lantz, a software designer, helped her husband with the math behind the exponential growth being modeled in Universal Paperclips.[1] Bennett Foddy contributed a space combat feature.[2] Lantz announced the free Web game on Twitter on 9 October 2017; the site initially went down intermittently due to its immediate viral popularity.[3] In the first 11 days, 450,000 people played the game, most to completion, according to Wired.[1] Commenting on the game's success, Lantz has stated "The meme weather was good for me... There was just enough public discussion of A.I. safety in the air."[4]

A paid version of the game was later sold for mobile devices.[5]


The game begins with a single button that can be clicked to build a paperclip; additional options open up throughout the game, all of which are accessed solely by mouse. The user can quickly automate paperclip production, invest the profits in the stock market, and invest the stock market profits into computer upgrades, all for the sake of ultimately maximizing paperclip production.[6] An activity log records the user's accomplishments, and also gives the user some glimpses into the AI's occasionally unsettling thoughts.[7] The game ends if the player reaches 30.0 septendecillion paperclips, finishing the conversion of all matter in the universe into paperclips.


According to Lantz, the game was inspired by the paperclip maximizer, a thought experiment by philosopher Nick Bostrom and popularized by the Less Wrong internet forum, which Lantz frequently visited. In the paperclip maximizer scenario, an artificial general intelligence designed to build paperclips becomes superintelligent, perhaps through recursive self-improvement. In the worst-case scenario, the AI becomes smarter than humans in the same way that humans are smarter than apes. The goal of making paperclips initially seems banal and harmless, but the AI uses its superintelligence to easily gain a strategic advantage over the human race and effectively takes over the world, as taking over the world is the best way to maximize its goal of building paperclips. The AI does not allow humans to shut it down or slow it down once it has a strategic advantage, as that would interfere with its goal of building as many paperclips as possible. According to Bostrom, the paperclips example is a toy model: "It doesn't have to be paper clips. It could be anything. But if you give an artificial intelligence an explicit goal – like maximizing the number of paper clips in the world – and that artificial intelligence has gotten smart enough to the point where it is capable of inventing its own super-technologies and building its own manufacturing plants, then, well, be careful what you wish for."[1][7][8] A seemingly innocuous goal leads to human extinction, as our bodies are made of matter and so too, it happens, are paperclips.[9]

Lantz argues that Universal Paperclips reflects a version of the orthogonality thesis, which states that an agent can theoretically have any combination of intelligence level and goal: "When you play a game – really any game, but especially a game that is addictive and that you find yourself pulled into – it really does give you direct, first-hand experience of what it means to be fully compelled by an arbitrary goal."[1] While the game often takes narrative license, Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute argues that the core of the game's fundamental understanding of what superintelligence would entail is probably correct: "The AI is smart. The AI is being strategic. The AI is building hypnodrones, but not releasing them before it’s ready... There isn't a long, drawn-out fight with the humans because the AI is smarter than that."[1]

Lantz states that exponential growth is another strong theme, saying "The human brain isn't really designed to intuitively understand things like exponential growth" but that Paperclips as a clicker game allows users to "directly engage with these numerical patterns, to hold them in your hands and feel the weight of them."[10]

Lantz was also inspired by Kittens, an initially simple videogame that spirals into an exploration of how societies are structured.[1]


Brendan Caldwell of Rock, Paper, Shotgun stated that "like all the best clicker games, there's a sinister and funny underbelly in which to become hopelessly lost."[11] Emanuel Maiberg of Vice Media's MotherBoard called the game mindlessly addictive: "The truth is, I am kind of embarrassed by how much I enjoy Paperclips and that I can't figure out what Lantz is trying to say with it."[12] Stephanie Chan of VentureBeat stated "I found myself delighted by sudden musical cues and the occasional koans that appeared in the activity log at the top of the page."[10] Adam Rogers of Wired praised Lantz for "taking a denigrated game genre (the 'clicker') and making it more than it is."[1] James Vincent of The Verge recommended Paperclips as "the most addictive (game) you'll play today";[13] in December The Verge listed Paperclips among the best 15 games of 2017.[14] Vox Media's Polygon ranked Paperclips as #37 among the best 50 games of 2017.[15] The game was nominated for "Strategy/Simulation" at the 2018 Webby Awards.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Way the World Ends: Not with a Bang But a Paperclip". WIRED. 21 October 2017. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  2. ^ Frank Lantz (2017). Universal Paperclips. Scene: End credits.
  3. ^ Gerardi, Matt (11 October 2017). "This game about watching a computer make paperclips sure beats doing actual work". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  4. ^ Jahromi, Neima (28 March 2019). "The Unexpected Philosophical Depths of Clicker Games". Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  5. ^ "Universal Paperclips Review: Filling Office Space". Gamezebo. 22 November 2017. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  6. ^ Tassi, Paul. "Get Sucked Into The Black Hole Of 'Paperclips,' A Hopelessly Addicting Browser Game". Forbes. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  7. ^ a b Gerardi, Matt (11 October 2017). "This game about watching a computer make paperclips sure beats doing actual work". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  8. ^ "Our weird robot apocalypse: How paper clips could bring about the end of the world". Salon. 17 August 2014. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  9. ^ "This Game About Paperclips Will Make You Ponder the Apocalypse". Waypoint (Vice News). 13 October 2017. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  10. ^ a b "This clicker game lets you take over the world with paper clips | VentureBeat". VentureBeat. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  11. ^ Caldwell, Brendan (10 October 2017). "Paperclips is a scary clicker game about an ambitious AI". Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  12. ^ Maiberg, Emanuel (10 October 2017). "This Game About Making Paper Clips Has Cured Me of Twitter". Motherboard (Vice Media). Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  13. ^ "A game about AI making paperclips is the most addictive you'll play today". The Verge. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  14. ^ "The 15 best video games of 2017". The Verge. 15 December 2017. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  15. ^ "The 50 best games of 2017". Polygon. 18 December 2017. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  16. ^ "2018 Winners". The Webby Awards. 24 April 2018. Retrieved 30 June 2018.

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