Artificial Intelligence: Toward a Theory of Minds

One thing that differentiates humans from animals is a concept called “Theory of Mind”. Theory of Mind describes how individuals are able to understand what other humans are thinking and feeling so that they can make an appropriate response. This idea is increasingly important for implementations of artificial intelligence.  Theory of Mind is an understanding of the intellectual and emotional state, motivations, and probable actions of another individual based upon internal hypotheses about how that individual must be thinking. It demands creating a model of another mind. To date, this concept has been considered mainly in the realm of developing humanoid robots, but it has important consequences across all AI.

How is this important? It has two components with different effects. First, it is about developing an AI Theory of Mind to promote more precise interaction with human beings. Intelligent machines will need to anticipate human response to understand the broader context of questions and required actions. Second, it is about having a Theory of Mind for each AI that we, as humans, encounter (Theory of AI Mind). This will become increasingly important for interactions between people and machines.

AI Theory of Minds

AI Theory of Human Mind

The next evolution of an AI will require each AI to have a Theory of Human Mind, and an ability to understand and act according to human characteristics, thought patterns, and biases. This is a part of current developments. It is difficult, however, since it requires machines to understand something that we strain to understand ourselves. Philosophers have struggled endlessly with the lack of capability to externalize human thought or obtain an objective understanding. Still, as with the Turing test, the attribution of a Theory of Mind is proven if the machine is able to anticipate human thoughts, actions, or desires and act upon them in a way that signifies understanding rather than pre-programmed behavior.

Theory of Mind is likely to emerge as a clear differentiator between generations of AI, and an important milestone along the way to true general intelligence. It will also mark the possibility of full collaboration with humans with each side capable of understanding possible actions by the other.

Human Theory of AI Mind

The other side of the coin is the more immediately important human Theory of AI Mind. We are intuitively aware of this when question a digital assistant. Before making a query, we consider the “intelligence” of the machine and its probable response, and frame questions to produce a useful response. We then evaluate the response based on the same model.  If it is a weak or very limited AI, this is taken into account; if it is a strong AI, then questions of capability, bias, focus, and domain come into play. We create a model of AI response. Theory of AI mind is also important in considering responsibility for an action; a concept which will be extremely important for insurance in applications such as autonomous vehicles.

Theory of AI Mind will become increasingly important for user interface in moving toward ubiquitous AI. As machines grow “smarter”, we will expect more of them, and more differences between them. As with understanding of human Theory of Mind and personality, we will hold mental models of specific AI’s and interact with them according to that model.

Implications for Theories of General Intelligence

With further development of both sides of AI Theory of Mind will come a greater understanding of how people interact with other intelligent entities–including other humans. AI provides an intelligent “Other” that is not necessarily subject to biases of human thought. People have inbuilt biases of many types and from many sources including heredity, society, brain function, mental limitations, the conscious/subconscious split, and  innumerable other factors. If we abstract intelligence from this matrix, it becomes more possible to understand the specific things which make human intelligence special. For the first time, we may be able to step aside from human capabilities and reach a broader understanding of intelligence itself.

From a technology perspective, Theory of Mind will become a competitive factor in AI development. Machines of limited intelligence, creativity, or capability will be perceived as such and will have caveats put upon their operation. This is similar to human interactions with animals, which are perceived as having a small intelligence and fixed responses to many stimuli. Competition to meet such perceptual criteria will empower the race toward artificial general intelligence. It will also drive development of intelligence toward more human-like interaction. Some of this is already happening as we move toward intelligent humanoids which are made to appear like rational creatures and satisfy some of the requirements of a theory of mind.


Theory of Mind is likely to become more critical in coming years. In a sense, it provides an evaluative concept for AI which steps beyond the Turing Test. In the Turing test it is possible to create a nebulous interaction which appears on the surface to be somewhat human and somewhat able to fool individuals. But, if a machine is able to interact on an intellectual level and provide the framework for an adequate Theory of Mind ,then it becomes something more than just a machine with interesting and creative responses. Perhaps, a Theory of Mind is the basis for consciousness, or a preliminary step in that direction. But, in any case, this criteria, commonly used to differentiate between humans and animals, must be turned on its head to distinguish between humans and AI.


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