Why did you decide to go into this bar and not that bar?

On this question may depend the future of AI, and perhaps humanity. By posing it, AI researchers shift artificial intelligence from the source of convenient robot helpers to the thing that unlocks humans’ limitless potential.

Or so we thought after our conversation with lead researcher Jeff Clune of the Evolving AI Lab. We sought out an unorthodox AI pioneer, and Clune did not disappoint. He’s at the leading edge of his field if you go by such things as his output of published papers. We don’t go by that, though. Clune stands out because he is trying to teach robots not so much consciousness as sub-consciousness; and he wants to teach that sub-consciousness to evolve, just like ours did.

Of course, our choice of what bar to go into typically, at least for most people, emerges from the subconscious. Clune points out it’s hard to say afterwards why we chose one after the other. Why is this so important for AI?

Well, if Clune has his way, the evolution of the robot mind will eventually produce a robot subconscious: they will interact socially, away from us; they will desire to play; they will be curious, and generate art, and solve complex problems the way we do. Not so much through rational heavy-lifting, but through that spark of insight, the one they have in the robot-shower, that tells them the answer lies in one direction and not the other. Robots will have serendipity and produce novelty.

For humans, novelty is way more important than efficiency. In the future, our milk carton will order more milk when it’s empty, and have it delivered. That most certainly will not change humanity. What will is robots that ask different questions than we do; robots that surprise us with their creativity and spark; robots that help us see the world in a completely different way. Those are the robots Clune is creating the foundation for. We were fascinated to hear how an AI researcher may influence the course of our future. We think you will too.

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This article was originally published in design4emergence, a network science community sponsored and nurtured by Dialog, the world’s first network design firm.