Maybe you want to maximise paperclips too

As most LWers will know, Clippy the Paper­clip Max­imiser is a su­per­in­tel­li­gence who wants to tile the uni­verse with pa­per­clips. The LessWrong wiki en­try for Paper­clip Max­i­mizer says that:

The goal of max­i­miz­ing pa­per­clips is cho­sen for illus­tra­tive pur­poses be­cause it is very un­likely to be implemented

I think that a mas­sively pow­er­ful star-far­ing en­tity—whether a Friendly AI, a far-fu­ture hu­man civil­i­sa­tion, aliens, or what­ever—might in­deed end up es­sen­tially con­vert­ing huge swathes of mat­ter in to pa­per­clips. Whether a mas­sively pow­er­ful star-far­ing en­tity is likely to arise is, of course, a sep­a­rate ques­tion. But if it does arise, it could well want to tile the uni­verse with pa­per­clips.

Let me ex­plain.


To travel across the stars and achieve what­ever no­ble goals you might have (as­sum­ing they scale up), you are go­ing to want en­ergy. A lot of en­ergy. Where do you get it? Well, at in­ter­stel­lar scales, your only op­tions are nu­clear fu­sion or maybe fis­sion.

Iron has the strongest bind­ing en­ergy of any nu­cleus. If you have el­e­ments lighter than iron, you can re­lease en­ergy through nu­clear fu­sion—stick­ing atoms to­gether to make big­ger ones. If you have el­e­ments heav­ier than iron, you can re­lease en­ergy through nu­clear fis­sion—split­ting atoms apart to make smaller ones. We can do this now for a hand­ful of el­e­ments (mostly se­lected iso­topes of ura­nium, plu­to­nium and hy­dro­gen) but we don’t know how to do this for most of the oth­ers—yet. But it looks ther­mo­dy­nam­i­cally pos­si­ble. So if you are a mas­sively pow­er­ful and mas­sively clever galaxy-hop­ping agent, you can ex­tract max­i­mum en­ergy for your pur­poses by tak­ing up all the non-fer­rous mat­ter you can find and turn­ing it in to iron, get­ting en­ergy through fu­sion or fis­sion as ap­pro­pri­ate.

You leave be­hind you a cold, dark trail of iron.

That seems a lit­tle grim. If you have any aes­thetic sense, you might want to make it pret­tier, to leave an en­dur­ing sign of val­ues be­yond mere en­ergy ac­qui­si­tion. With care­ful en­g­ineer­ing, it would take only a tiny, tiny amount of ex­tra effort to leave the iron ar­ranged in to beau­tiful shapes. Curves are nice. What do you call a lump of iron ar­ranged in to an art­fully-twisted shape? I think we could rea­son­ably call it a pa­per­clip.

Over time, the amount of space that you’ve vis­ited and har­vested for en­ergy will in­crease, and the amount of space available for your no­ble goals—or for any­one else’s—will de­crease. Grad­u­ally but steadily, you are con­vert­ing the uni­verse in to art­fully-twisted pieces of iron. To an on­looker who doesn’t see or un­der­stand your no­ble goals, you will look a lot like you are a pa­per­clip max­imiser. In Eliezer’s terms, your de­sire to do so is an in­stru­men­tal value, not a ter­mi­nal value. But—con­di­tional on my wild spec­u­la­tions about en­ergy sources here be­ing cor­rect—it’s what you’ll do.