Open-endedness: The last grand challenge you’ve never heard of


    Artificial intelligence (AI) is a grand challenge for computer science. Lifetimes of effort and billions of dollars have powered its pursuit. Yet, today its most ambitious vision remains unmet: though progress continues, no human-competitive general digital intelligence is within our reach. However, such an elusive goal is exactly what we expect from a “grand challenge”—it’s something that will take astronomical effort over expansive time to achieve—and is likely worth the wait. There are other grand challenges, like curing cancer, achieving 100% renewable energy, or unifying physics. Some fields have entire sets of grand challenges, such as David Hilbert’s 23 unsolved problems in mathematics, which laid down the gauntlet for the entire 20th century. What’s unusual, though, is for there to be a problem whose solution could radically alter our civilization and our understanding of ourselves while being known only to the smallest sliver of researchers. Despite how strangely implausible that sounds, it is precisely the scenario today with the challenge of open-endedness. Almost no one has even heard of this problem, let alone cares about its solution, even though it is among the most fascinating and profound challenges that might actually someday be solved. With this article, we hope to help fix this surprising disconnect. We’ll explain just what this challenge is, its amazing implications if solved, and how to join the quest if we’ve inspired your interest.


    Kenneth O. Stanley


    O’Reilly Online

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