Thursday, February 08, 2007

A brief discussion of the justification of the use of Artificial Agents in studying Biological Processes

When studying humans and animals, it is necessary to take experimental precautions to ensure that the article of interest is actually studied, and no other. This experimental isolation in practice is impossible both because of the complexity of the systems involved and the difficulty (near impossibility) in controlling all of the variables. One approach which may be taken is the use of artificial models of the processes of interest – of particular interest here are artificial agents, for example real or simulated robots, which may be used as a solution to the aforementioned problems. This very brief discussion looks at the potential benefits of using artificial agents in the examination of biological processes – for example animal behaviour or cognitive abilities.

Firstly, whereas the isolation of a specific process-of-importance is impossible in the natural systems of interest, it is very possible in an artificial system. Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to implement all of the aspects of the biological system in an artificial one. Of course, care must be taken to ensure that the process or function in question remains in context, so that its examination may yield results applicable to the original system. Secondly, in testing humans and animals, it is very difficult to control all of the variables, both experimental and environmental. With artificial agents, every aspect of their functioning is under full control, leading to the easier control of experimental variables. Also, in simulated environments at least, it is also possible to control every aspect of the environment. A final aspect is also of importance, which may be seen as both an advantage and a disadvantage – that of the practicalities of actual implementation. This forces one to be explicit in all the details of a particular theory, to a level which is not normally required from a theory derived from observations of the original biological process. When models of the processes of interest are actually implemented, a number of assumptions are generally required over and above those central to the theory. This forced explicitness may detract from the biological plausibility of the implementation, however it may provide a handle on an alternative perspective on the original biological theory.

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