Monday, October 22, 2007

On Robots and Psychology

Valentino Braitenberg's Vehicles are often the first lesson in (cognitive) robotics courses as a prime example of the interaction between an agent and its environment, and how complex behaviour does not necissarily imply a complex control architecture (as well as Rodney Brooks' work of course). The fourteen vehicles (or agents) of increasing complexity demonstrate an 'evolution' of behaviours, dependant as much on the environment as on the morphologyand control architecture of the agents themselves. I think the following paragraphs, quoted from the introduction to the book (full reference at end) illustrates how this examination may lead to insight into the biological organisms from which they were inspired (whilst not claiming to 'solve' any of the problems):

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


Dave said...

I loved Vehicles. It was the basis for the last quarter of my intro to metaphysics and epistemology (taught by a professor in the cognitive science program here) and was incredibly important in forming my approach the mind. I should order a copy for myself.

Paul said...

Hi Dave, thanks for your comment!

I completely agree that the book is very influential in many peoples' thoughts. However (and I can only speak for myself of course) I think many have become acquainted with the ideas presented from other books, without actually having looked at "Vehaicles" itself. That's certainly my situation, and I'm trying to remedy that - especially since it seems to be closely related to my own work at the moment.

Thanks again, and good luck with your study abroad application!

lisa said...


I just took a look through your blog, and discovered that you have a lot of the same interests as me. I am an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University studying computer science, and I became really fascinated in the mind and how it works when I took a cognitive psychology class. I am now doing a second major in cognitive science. Your description of your interest in cognition in your 'about me' really struck a chord with me... it is exactly how I feel. I took a look at the Cybernetics Intelligence Research Group website, and it looks like a program that I might be interested in when I graduate from here in a few years. I just wanted to let you know that I found your blog interesting and I will be reading through it more over the next few days.

Paul said...

Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment!
I'm glad to hear of our common interest, and I hope you find some of my posts interesting.
To be honest, I wrote the 'about me' section about a year ago and haven't given it mush thought since, but it does still broadly represent my interests (there are other things I aught to mention too, such as cognitive and developmental robotics, artificial ethology, and more generally the implementation of neuroscientific models into robotics).
If you wish, please leave comments as you read your way through my posts, as I enjoy receiving feedback, and more to the point, discussing anything related - thanks.
Finally, if there is anything you would like to know more about any of the courses here at Reading, let me know, and I will try to get you that information.

Judy Jacob said...

I have been following your blog for sometime... though this is my first comment here.

Thought would drop by and send you some flashcards which I have found interesting.