Robots Can’t Dance

Can a robot be creative? Advances in cloud robotics—machines connected to supercomputers in the cloud—have given self-driving cars, surgical robots, and other “smart” devices tremendous powers of computation. But can a robot, even one supercharged with artificial intelligence, be creative? Will a mechanical Picasso paint among us?

Ken Goldberg is the ideal person to ask. For one thing, when he was getting his Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Goldberg built a robot that painted. For another, Goldberg, 53, is a computer engineer, roboticist, and artist himself. He grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he forged his creative path. “I was an outsider, at odds with what other kids were doing, and became very interested in art,” he says.

Today Goldberg is Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also directs a lab on automation sciences, a center for medical robots, an initiative on data and democracy, and a center for new media. He’s published more than 150 peer-reviewed papers on topics such as automation algorithms and his artwork has been exhibited at the Pompidou Center, Whitney Biennial, and Berkeley Art Museum.

Goldberg has strong views on creativity and how it differs in computers and people. His energy and intellect are infectious as his mind races from one idea to another. Our conversation ranged over his own projects and heroes, from gothic literature to Google Glass, Freud to philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. We spoke at his UC Berkeley lab and at a restaurant in Mill Valley, California, near his home, where he lives with his wife, Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker and the founder of the Webby Awards, and their two daughters, Odessa and Blooma.

What’s been your most creative moment in science?

I spent a summer in graduate school trying to find the mathematical proof of completeness for an algorithm I had written to orient polygonal objects. I lived alone and every day I would

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus5 min read
Why Campaigns to Change Language Often Backfire
In the first decades of the 20th century, people around the world began succumbing to an entirely new cause of mortality. These new deaths, due to the dangers of the automobile, soon became accepted as a lamentable but normal part of modern life. A h
Nautilus7 min read
Why We’re Drawn Into Darkness: Author Robert MacFarlane on the awe and horror of subterranean places.
Robert Macfarlane grew up obsessed twith climbing mountains and nearly died on several occasions as he scaled some of the world’s high peaks. He found a safer way to indulge his alpine passions, writing about the mystique of mountains. As someone dra
Nautilus6 min readSociety
How Freedom Divides: An expert on animal societies on what sets human societies apart.
As a biologist who studies animal behavior, particularly the long-term stability of the societies of different species, our own included, I’ve traveled through diverse cultures around the world. The word I hear everywhere I go, a badge of honor to al