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Optical illusion study could open door to building creative-minded robots

University of Alberta neuroscientist said understanding why people interpret pictures in different ways could influence new approach to robots

Supplied / University of Alberta

An age-old optical illusion could one day help robots make art.

Kyle Mathewson, a neuroscientist and assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s department of psychology, published a paper in January showing the reactions of psych students to an ambiguous sketching of two identical figures that could be perceived as either ducks or rabbits.

Some saw two ducks, or two rabbits, but few were able to see both until one student found a particular way of describing the photo as a duck “eating” a rabbit.

“Those who can’t see it, their mind can be switched by asking them to think about it in this new way,” Mathewson said.

He said the experiment showed the way people go into something can influence the way they understand it, which could be applied to reading a news article or watching a TV show.

His next step is to measure people’s eye movements when they are looking at the pictures, and start figuring out what each person’s interpretation of an illusion says about themselves.

But the ultimate goal goes beyond humanity.

Mathewson, who also runs an artificial intelligence company, has been studying optical illusions for eight years, and plans to apply his findings to robots.

“We don’t quite understand how our brain makes up our perception of the world. We feel like we’re a camera just filming the outside world, but our brains are kind of constructing our interpretation of what’s going on,” he said.

“So the better we can understand that, the better we can make artificial brains that can act in similar ways to our brains.”  

Rather than having robots do repetitive tasks that humans don’t want to do, Mathewson wants to see robots match, or even outperform, human behavior when it comes to more abstract, creative and “fun” endeavours.

That process could start by understanding why humans react the way they do to optical illusions like the duck and the rabbit.

“We now can have artificial agents that can be creative, and maybe think of new jokes or think of new scientific ideas to investigate or think of new books to write or new plays to create,” Mathewson said.

“Creating intelligence that isn’t just doing the boring jobs but doing some fun things that humans do, like hallucinate, I think is going to be important.”

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