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From locomotion to cognition

English title From locomotion to cognition
Applicant Pfeifer Rolf
Number 122279
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Institut für Informatik Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Information Technology
Start/End 01.10.2008 - 30.09.2010
Approved amount 254'625.00
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Keywords (9)

embodiment; morphological computation; adaptive locomotion; symbol grounding; associative learning; self-exploration; body dynamics; body schema; forward models

Lay Summary (English)

Lay summary
Background: The starting point of this project is given by the state of the art in the field of embodied cognitive science and biologically inspired robotics, to which we have contributed with our research, as summarized in the books “Understanding Intelligence” (Pfeifer and Scheier, 1999), “How the Body Shapes the Way we Think” (Pfeifer and Bongard, 2007) and a review paper in Science magazine (Pfeifer et al., 2007). In order to understand and design intelligent behavior or cognition, we must adopt an embodied perspective, i.e. we must take into account the entire agent - including its shape or morphology, the materials from which it is built, its interaction with the environment, and the neural control. One of our central research themes is the investigation of low-level sensory-motor tasks such as locomotion (e.g. walking, swimming) in physical robots. “Morphological computation” - control or computation taken over by the dynamic interaction derived from morphological properties (e.g. shape of body, spring-like properties of muscles) - allows agents to achieve faster, more robust and more energy-efficient behavior. While this research is interesting in itself, in the context of artificial intelligence and cognitive science, it leads to the question of what these kinds of tasks have to do with higher levels of cognition, or to put it more provocatively, “What does walking have to do with thinking?” This question is reminiscent of the “symbol grounding problem” and the quest for “grounded cognition”. In contrast to most of the research on this topic, we propose to exploit the dynamic interaction between the embodied agent and its environment to bootstrap cognition. Goals of project: We plan to systematically explore and quantify the effects of different morphologies (physical properties of robots) on behavior. Supported by computer modeling, we will devise hardware solutions that allow us to manipulate the morphology online, controllers that autonomously explore these possibilities and learn to exploit them. Using this basis, we intend to study concepts like “body schema” and forward models, which are believed to constitute the basis of cognition, in various robotic experiments.Importance: By providing a new way of thinking about intelligence and agent design, this approach demonstrates how hard theoretical problems such as cognition can be tackled experimentally. Many scientific theories of cognition suffer from being only loosely grounded in empirical evidence. However, using the synthetic methodology (“understanding by building”) to build physical robots, we are able to investigate agents with different bodies, brains and in different environments and talk about cognition in very concrete terms. Our unique collection of robots (running, swimming, etc.) provides an excellent test bed for theories of cognition and adaptation in autonomous agents. On the other hand, the design methodology for robots and their control algorithms constitutes a very pragmatic impact for engineering. It has also been our experience that these ideas can easily be transferred to other domains like management, education, and design in general.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
109210 From locomotion to cognition 01.10.2005 Project funding (Div. I-III)