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

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