Robots are good at computational tasks like playing chess, figuring out bus routes or solving math problems, for example. But ask them to walk, talk or recognize everyday objects, and things quickly fall apart, researchers say. An emerging field known as of "neurobiological robotics" is looking for unique human or animal abilities that can be copied, turned into software, and replicated in order to make robots work better.
A group of the world's top researchers in this field are presenting several works-in-progress at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation this week in Hong Kong.
"We're trying to make the robot brain more like human brain," said Jeff Krichmar, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. "The brain has incredibly flexibility and adaptability. If you look at any artificial system, it's far more brittle than biology."
Krichmar is experimenting with building neurotic robots that exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, just like humans, or are afraid of open spaces. He's doing this by making a robot act like a mouse in a cage.
"If you put a rodent in a room that is open and unfamiliar, it will hug the walls," Krichmar said. "It will hide until it becomes comfortable, then it will move across the room. It will wait until if feels comfortable. We did that with a robot and made it so it was so anxious it would never cross the room."
Krichmar's team uses a rodent model and varying levels of dopamine and serotonin, the two brain hormones that control pleasure centers and well-being. The effects of the chemicals on the rodent are then replicated in the robot's software, Krichmar explained.
"Were mimicking the action of the chemicals with equations," he said. "We are doing mathematical models of brain or cognitive system, then putting that in software and it becomes the controller for the robot."