Nautilus

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

Nautilus7 min read
These Maps Reveal Earth’s Unspoiled Places: A revolution in archaeology is happening just when we need it most.
An underreported aspect of the climate crisis is that archaeological sites, cultural landscapes, biodiversity, and distributions of flora and fauna—much of which modern people will never even know about—are disappearing at an alarming rate. I’m an ar
Nautilus7 min read
Never Say Wolf: How taboo language turned the wolf into a monster.
Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” So says Count Dracula to the hapless Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s novel. Dracula is talking about the wolves howling in the valley below his castle in the Carpathian mountains. Thi
Nautilus7 min readPsychology
This Psychological Concept Could Be Shaping the Presidential Election
Last summer, I briefly met Elizabeth Warren in a restaurant in Cambridge, near Harvard, where I’m a postdoc in psychology. My dad and I saw the Massachusetts senator, a 2020 presidential candidate, walking in as we were walking out. “Give ’em hell,”