Engineer Sanjay Joshi and professor of psychology Jeffrey Schank at UC Davis have recorded the behavior of rat pups and built robots with the same basic senses and motor skills to see how behavior can emerge from a simple set of rules.
Rat pups, blind and deaf, do not seem to have a whale of a time. They move about until they hit a wall, feel their way along the wall until their nose goes into a corner, then mostly stay put. But as their senses and responses are so limited, pups should be a good starting point for building robots that can do the same thing.
When the robotic “rats” were put into an arena like the one used with real rats, they scuttled along the walls and repeatedly bumped into one corner, but favored one wall. Instead of stopping in a corner they kept going, circling the arena.
“When we re-analyzed the animal data, we found that the animals were also favoring one wall over another as they bumped around in corners,” Joshi said. The wall-following or corner-sticking is emergent behavior. It is not written into the computer code, but emerges as a result of the instructions the robot follows as it interacts with the environment.
The researchers also investigate how groups of robotic rats interact using different kinds of rules. This should show biologists what the rats may be doing. Understanding the biology of these simple systems might later inform the design of more sophisticated robots.