In 2003, the philosopher Nick Bostrom proposed a thought experiment called The Paperclip Maximizer, a provocation designed to show the risks associated with AI that is not in tune with human values.
An AI is programmed to maximize the production of paperclips, producing as many as possible, optimizing procurement of all raw materials needed to achieve its goal, over time converting the entire planet into paperclip manufacturing facilities, before identifying and solving the final obstacle standing in its way — humans.
Can AI be engineered to integrate fundamental human values in its decisioning, giving weight to our sense of fairness, of right and wrong?
But what are these values, and who defines them for the world? Judeo-Christian or Islamic values? Eastern or Western? Those of G20 Nations or developing countries? Generational values?
As AI optimizes trade-offs to achieve its task, how will it know the decisions that are best for society?
I believe marketers will soon begin confronting small-scale versions of the Paperclip Maximizer. Will the company’s AI maximize decisions for shareholder returns, for environmental impact, or for customer satisfaction?
We may be entering a time when those lofty corporate purpose statements matter more than ever. Marketers cannot solve society’s existential dilemma but they can ensure the AI in their tech stack will make decisions guided by the company’s stated brand values.
Twenty years after Bostrom put forward the Paperclip Maximizer, the EU last week agreed to a sweeping law to regulate artificial intelligence, which the New York Times called “one of the world’s first comprehensive attempts to limit the use of a rapidly evolving technology.”
I would’ve been reassured by this had the New York Times article not mentioned that the regulators’ initial draft in 2021 was scrapped the day ChatGPT emerged because they were blindsided by sudden and unforeseen development.
This technology is developing fast. Companies also must move fast, because we know government regulators are not born with the speed gene.
So until wiser people sort this out, I think I’ll get a head start on my paperclip manufacturing skills.