Jan 022011
Shadow Dexterous Robot Hand holding a lightbulb
Image via Wikipedia

In a new Cognitive Robotics Lab, students at Rensselaer are exploring how human thought outwits brute force computing in the real world.

The lab’s 20 programmable robots allow students to test the real-world performance of computer models that mimic human thought.

“The real world has a lot of inconsistency that humans handle almost without noticing — for example, we walk on uneven terrain, we see in shifting light,” said Professor Vladislav Daniel Veksler, who is currently teaching Cognitive Robotics. “With robots, we can see the problems humans face when navigating their environment.”

Cognitive Robotics marries the study of cognitive science — how the brain represents and transforms information — with the challenges of a physical environment. Advances in cognitive robotics transfer to artificial intelligence, which seeks to develop more efficient computer systems patterned on the versatility of human thought.

Professor Bram Van Heuveln, who organized the lab, said cognitive scientists have developed a suite of elements — perception/action, planning, reasoning, memory, decision-making — that are believed to constitute human thought. When properly modeled and connected, those elements are capable of solving complex problems without the raw power required by precise mathematical computations.

“Suppose we wanted to build a robot to catch fly balls in an outfield. There are two approaches: one uses a lot of calculations — Newton’s law, mechanics, trigonometry, calculus — to get the robot to be in the right spot at the right time,” said Van Heuveln. “But that’s not the way humans do it. We just keep moving toward the ball. It’s a very simple solution that doesn’t involve a lot of computation but it gets the job done.”

Robotics are an ideal testing ground for that principle because robots act in the real world, and a correct cognitive solution will withstand the unexpected variables presented by the real world.

“The physical world can help us to drive science because it’s different from any simulated world we could come up with — the camera shakes, the motors slip, there’s friction, the light changes,” Veksler said. “This platform — robotics — allows us to see that you can’t rely on calculations. You have to be adaptive.”

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