In HBO’s new series Westworld, robots begin to gain consciousness via hidden software code that allows them to start indulging in “reveries” or daydreams that arise spontaneously in the form of memories and disconnected thoughts and visions. In the latest episode (Season 1: Episode 9), mad scientist Dr. Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, tells his star creation, the robot Bernard, that consciousness is the key to humanity. And that allowing robots access to “inner monologues” is the way to “bootstrap consciousness.”

Not to be paranoid . . . but . . . this is just what theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warned us about: "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," Hawking said in a BBC interview. "It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."

And how might that be done—this takeover by artificial intelligence? By giving away humankind’s most powerful gift: the ability to imagine.

Human beings appear, thus far, to be the only species that has the capacity to imagine, to simulate events in the mind’s eye, and to formulate ideas outside the realm of current possibility.  

The ability to imagine is what propels us. It’s why we have moved in a relatively short span of time from cave dwellers to web-surfing, space-age globetrotters.

So, when Westworld’s software designers give robots the code to free associate, to daydream, to envision, to access memories, they are truly opening Pandora’s box. As viewers of Westworld know, an imaginative robot is a formidable enemy.

While science fiction has long been a predictor of innovation and problems caused by such innovation, adding the capacity for computers to daydream is not a fantasy. It’s already happening and has been for a couple of decades. In my book Daydreams at Work, I discuss DAYDREAMER software with its creator Erik Mueller, PhD, who is also the co-developer of the esteemed Watson Jeopardy! system, Watson for Healthcare, and WatsonPaths at IBM, as well as the author of Daydreaming in Humans and Machines: A Computer Model of the Stream of Thought.

Applications for Mueller’s DAYDREAMER program include allowing a computer’s operating system to use its free time to plan future operations, enabling robots to interact more naturally with the real world, helping writers and computer programmers generate story ideas and plot twists, and enlivening the conversational interaction between humans and computers (think Apple’s Siri). All you need to do is input goals and events, and it will daydream up possible solutions and ideas.

Another group actively working in this arena, says Mueller, is the “interactive narrative community,” which includes artificial intelligence researchers who are interested in incorporating story generation and emotion modeling into their designs. In other words, to make computer programs more creative, lively, and humanlike.

Sound familiar Westworld fans?

I’m not sure I want artificial intelligence developers to be successful at this. After all, our capacity to daydream may be what ultimately sets us apart from computers and will ensure, hopefully, our usefulness as a species and keep us from being totally replaced by machines, as quite a few imaginative science fiction writers—and now Stephen Hawking—have warned.

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