Can robots help us understand the development of behavior?
University of California, Davis
Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis
Department of Mechanical & Aeronautical Engineering, University of California, Davis
Last modified: March 31, 2006
Infant rats are born blind, deaf, and with limited locomotor abilities, nevertheless, they can aggregate and orient to tactile, thermal, and olfactory stimuli. It would appear that sensorimotor development early in life could be fully characterized in terms of taxes (orienting responses to a stimulus) and kineses (change in behavioral patterns in response to a stimulus). One of the most basic taxes is thigmotaxis (an orienting response to contact). For example, when infant rats (7 to 10 days of age) are placed in a rectangular arena either individually or in groups, they display patterns of thigmotaxic behavior. They tend to follow walls, get stuck in corners, and aggregate into groups. Robotic-rat pups that we have built can do the same things qualitatively and quantitatively simply by moving randomly. In the case of the robots, body shape, other robots, and arena geometry constrain behavior such that it appears to be thigmotaxic. This suggests that pups early in development may not be responding thigmotaxically to every object they contact but only those with salient properties. Biorobotics and computer simulations are allowing us to disentangle the roles of intrinsic (e.g., sensorimotor rules) from extrinsic (e.g., body shape, environmental geometry) in generating behavior.