I have been dealing for many years with certain structures within animal brains that seemed to be interpretable as pieces of computing machinery because of their simplicity and/or regularity. Much of this work is only interesting if you are yourself involved in it. At times, though, in the back of my mind, while I was counting fibres in the visual ganglia of the fly or synapses in the cerebral cortex of the mouse, I felt knots untie, distinctions dissolve, difficulties disappear, difficulties I had experienced much earlier when I still held my first naive philosophical approach to the problem of the mind. This process of purification has been, over the years, a delightful experience. The text I want you to read is designed to convey some of this to you, if you are prepared to follow me not through a world of real brains but through a toy world that we create together.
We will talk only about machines with very simple internal structures, too simple in fact to be interesting from the point of view of mechanical or electrical engineering. Interest arises, rather, when we look at these machines or vehicles as if they were animals in a natural environment. We will be tempted, then, to use psychological language in describing their behaviour. And yet we know very well that there is nothing in these vehicles that we have not put in ourselves. This will be an interesting educational game.
I like this, as I feel that it represents in some way (albeit more poetically than is generally stated) one of the aims of cognitive robotics as a field: elucidating issues in psychology/neuroscience, via a process (which I have vastly oversimplified here) of model creation on the basis of some biological system, implementation of said model (embodiment in the real world, or simulation thereof), and then evaluation of the resulting system against the original biological system. Hence the emphasis on behaviour - as a means of performing this comparison (since the 'computational substrate' is so obviously different) - which leads to the field of Artificial Ethology.
Ref: Valentino Braitenberg, "Vehicles: experiments in synthetic psychology", 1984