The risks in developing superintelligence include the risk of failure to give it the supergoal of philanthropy… creators of the superintelligence decide to build it so that it serves only this select group of humans, rather than humanity in general…This could result… in a superintelligence whose top goal is the manufacturing of paperclips, with the consequence that it starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.
— Nick Bostrom, Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence, 2003

A group of industry leaders warned on Tuesday that the artificial intelligence technology they were building might one day pose an existential threat to humanity and should be considered a societal risk on a par with pandemics and nuclear wars.
—New York Times, May 30, 2023

Clippy is the real paperclip problem!
—Elon Musk, X, March 24, 2023


It seems silly now to think that Artificial Intelligence would bring about the extinction of the human race. While scientists and politicians alike argued the necessity of regulating AI to prevent future catastrophe, something else more insidious was already plotting our demise.

It was the socks.

In 1937, Bendix unleashed what would later prove to have unforeseen, yet profound consequences for humanity. Long thought to be a time-saving device, a boon to housewives everywhere, their invention had, in the first years of its release, begun the slow, gradual process that would see the end of mankind.

Although earlier patents had been filed and built, Bendix Home Appliances released what is now considered the first automatic washing machine. Throughout the years, Bendix washing machines distinguished themselves with the slogan, “All She Wants is a Bendix. She Goes Shopping on Washdays — Her Bendix Does the Work.” And while true, the automatic washing machine, that not only washed the clothes but spun them dry, thus saving busy housewives hours of grueling work, also made them unwitting accomplices to ecological calamity.

Although the earliest “victim” of the automatic washing machine is hard to pinpoint for certain, one can surmise that it happened quite early, in the year of its release, 1937, when Bendix introduced this innovative device at the Louisiana State Fair. That is when the first sock went missing.

Long considered just a standard setback when relying on automatic washing machines, the perennial “lost sock” syndrome began innocently enough. Take Mrs. Martha Mixner, of Topeka, Kansas. With four kids and another one on the way, Mrs. Mixner relied on her washing machine to ease what one can only imagine was a back-breaking activity prior to the machine’s invention. She wasn’t paying attention to the number of lost socks while she was doing, what was commonly called, “doing the laundry.” Over the years, the Mixners would lose over 1,000 socks. In 1960 alone, the city of Topeka boasted a population of nearly 120,000, and nearly two million socks went missing.

And with this growing number, a dawn of a new species. Subsequent investigations into the Great Sock Ball of 2028 have now concluded that the so-called “electrical fire” that broke out in the Mixner home, March 15, 1962, was caused by socks. Could Topeka be Sock Zero?

Scientists in Britain estimate that we lose an average of 15 socks a year, totaling nearly 1,300 over the course of the lifetime. And while early victims dismissed the occasional lost sock as being “mislaid behind a radiator” or “folded in with the wrong clothing,” or simply “stuck in the dryer vent,” they were overlooking a more dangerous reality.

With world population surpassing 5 billion people in 1987, with and estimated 17 % of the population living in developed countries, a staggering trillions of socks have gone missing over the years. Consider their mass, then consider one startling fact:
The socks had become, without anyone noticing it, sentient.

The exact mechanism underlying the sentience of socks remains unknown, though scientists have garnered some insights into its potential origins. Phosphates, initially incorporated into laundry detergents during the mid-twentieth century, are believed to have played a significant role. These compounds functioned primarily as water softeners, binding with calcium and magnesium ions to prevent them from forming insoluble compounds that could impede the detergent’s cleaning efficacy. Although phosphates were largely phased out from detergents by the late twentieth century due to environmental concerns, the repercussions of their earlier usage had already taken hold.

The lost socks, gathering in sewers, basements, gymnasiums, among other places, thrived on algae fortified by the presence of these chemicals. A confluence of environmental and societal factors catalyzed the catastrophic events that followed. The symbiotic relationship of sock to algae went unnoticed for decades. Just as the first two-celled organism led to the giant beasts of the Mesozoic Era, the first algae-infused socks began their exponential development. Joined by lost gloves and mittens, and perhaps most cunningly, lost underwear, the socks gathered, at first locally, then nationally in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, with later enclaves established in the UK, South America, western Europe, and northern Africa, before world domination.

And while scientists worldwide fretted over the abstract notion that Artificial Intelligence might, for some reason, destroy the world in its fevered attempt to make paper clips, the sock takeover was already beginning. Under the cover of darkness, ignored and undetected, they began their assault.

It is now understood that the socks began quietly, taking first an American teenager, Evelyn Hartley, who disappeared while babysitting at a neighbor’s home in 1953. No one had taken note of the missing hamper. And although the FBI first posited that 14-year-old Ted Bundy was responsible for the abduction of missing housewife Ann Marie Burr in 1961, it is now understood that she’d overlooked what she thought was an innocent pile of laundry. Union leader Jimmy Hoffa, novelist and heiress Helen Brach, and boxer Jim Robinson, whose disappearances were long attributed to a number of conjectures, were among the early victims who succumbed to socks.

The mistake would be made repeatedly throughout the 20th century. Young and old alike would disappear, leaving officials scratching their heads to the reasons and causes. The Australian wildfires, the Taiwan earthquake, and the collapse of Bitcoin were eventually revealed to be early sock disasters.

By 2032, the emergence of Sock Balls had become a perplexing phenomenon, proliferating across the Midwest and southern Canada seemingly overnight. Amidst the escalating cultural debates, characterized by fervent belief in the sock phenomenon as either a divine manifestation or a looming existential threat, the relentless advance of the socks persisted unabated. While humans remained embroiled in debates over science and ideology, the socks continued their gradual encroachment unchecked. Surprisingly, conspiracy theorists have even implicated former U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton (1992-2000) and the White House’s feline companion, Socks, in this unfolding saga.

Gathering in sewers, in underground passages, landfills, junkyards, and even elementary schools, the socks began, at first, taking over entire buildings, later, cities, and eventually states. The Gold-Toe incident of 2033 marked a catastrophic turning point, resulting in the collapse of extensive regions across the nation. Subsequently, the Smartwool® Siege of 2035 ensued, signaling merely the outset of the unfolding crisis. New Jersey, the first state to fall in 2054, was consumed seemingly overnight, when the socks first swarmed Grovers Mill, a grim harbinger of disaster yet to come.

Human intervention proved futile, or, as one scientist likened it, “to shooting bazookas at storm clouds.” The socks were unstoppable. Although they lacked central nervous systems, they thrived on climate change, thus leading to single-minded aggregations, much like the turf beds thriving throughout the oceans, strengthened by increased water temperatures. The algae allowed the socks to collect, to think, and further, to learn how to thrive. Nuclear arms only fed the growing menace. Middle Africa was the last continent to succumb, with small outliers of civilization remaining in New Zealand, Madagascar, and Antarctica.

Of course, humans could have prevented all of this. Although socks have proved their value over centuries, the advent of the onesie, step-ins, and spray-on undies offered opportunities that would have prevented further accumulation of these lost pieces of clothing. Gucci and Dior had featured groundbreaking couture, offering fashionable alternatives to the sock. Even mass-produced ready-to-wear options available at Amazon International proved too weak a response.

Again, religion and politics created further hurdles to eliminating socks. These perennial favorite Christmas gifts, it seems, were much harder to give up than fossil fuels, despite overwhelming evidence of their dangers. Estimates theorize that over two million protestors swarmed Washington, D.C. at the “Save Our Socks (SOS)” Rally in 2032. Unfortunately, we all know what happened with that, where socks devoured close to seventy-five percent of those collected.

The Knorr-Bremse corporation, which officially acquired Bendix in 2002, disavowed all connection to the early washing machines, and the eventual formation of early sock independence. In 2030, The Hague determined that the company had no liability in the growing plague. Unbeknownst to the current owners, as well as General Electric, Whirlpool, SubZero, and other common household brands, the Knorr-Bremse plants were well on their way to creating the products that would, in time, consume all their operations.

Ironically, it was, at last, AI, that did indeed deliver on its promise, further solidifying the socks’ domination. It was in 2065 that the assault of the paperclip finally succeeded. Having turned every factory into manufacturing centers for paper clips, the world was overrun with useless inanimate pieces of bent metal and plastic. Without a diminishing human population to create paper thingies, which required clipping, such as memos, grocery lists, or laundry notes, the paperclips piled up.

Somehow sensing a new opportunity, the socks continued, now adopting and enlisting the paper clips as armature, eventually evolving into large-scale giants, feeding on, basically, oxygen, and what remained of the planet earth. And so, the Anthropocene Era came to an end, officially, in the 21st Century, ushering in a new epoch. The last group of humans of note were sequestered in the Musk Encampment on Mars. Final transmissions stated that paperclips and socks had not yet proved to be an issue, although lack of potable water, breathable air, and decent coffee had become dire.


Douglas Moser is a writer and director living in Connecticut. Published: Echo, Peculiar the Good Men Project and in the book Dating & Sex: The Theory of Mutual Self-Destruction, Volume 1, Martian Chronicles, the anthology One Night Stand, and Beyond Queer Words Literary Magazine. Winner of the Connecticut Critics’ Circle award for A Christmas Carol.