A Squiggle Maximizer is a hypothetical artificial intelligence whose utility function values something that humans would consider almost worthless, like maximizing the number of paperclip-shaped-molecular-squiggles in the universe. The squiggle maximizer is the canonical thought experiment showing how an artificial general intelligence, even one designed competently and without malice, could ultimately destroy humanity. The thought experiment shows that AIs with apparently innocuous values could pose an existential threat.

This produces a thought experiment which shows the contingency of human values: An extremely powerful optimizer (a highly intelligent agent) could seek goals that are completely alien to ours (orthogonality thesis), and as a side-effect destroy us by consuming resources essential to our survival.

Historical Note: This was originally called a "paperclip maximizer", with paperclips chosen for illustrative purposes because it is very unlikely to be implemented, and has little apparent danger or emotional load (in contrast to, for example, curing cancer or winning wars). Many people interpreted this to be about an AI that was specifically given the instruction of manufacturing paperclips, and that the intended lesson was of an outer alignment failure. i.e humans failed to give the AI the correct goal. Yudkowsky has since stated the originally intended lesson was of inner alignment failure, wherein the humans gave the AI some other goal, but the AI's internal processes converged on a goal that seems completely arbitrary from the human perspective.)...

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