Taking a lesson from mice and rats, which find their way in the dark with their whiskers, a multinational team that includes Israelis is developing innovative touch technologies, including a robot that will be able to quickly locate, identify and capture moving objects in space.
The BIOTACT nature-imitation project, funded primarily by the EC Seventh Research Framework Program, includes participation by scientists from universities, research institutes and high-tech companies in Israel, Britain, Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and the US.
Based on principles of active sensing adopted widely in the animal kingdom, the multinational team plans to produce the “whiskered” robotic rat.
“The use of touch in the design of artificial intelligence systems has been largely overlooked until now,” says participant Prof. Ehud Ahissar of the neurobiology department at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science.
“In nocturnal creatures, or those that inhabit poorly lit places, the use of touch is widely preferred to vision as a primary means of learning and receiving physical information about their surrounding environment,” he said. “If we succeed in understanding what makes an animal’s sense of touch so efficient, we will be able to develop robots imitating this feature and put them to effective use.”
The consortium’s research suggests, among other things, that the neural signals travel from the whiskers through parallel pathways that function within parallel closed feedback loops, constantly monitoring the signals they receive and changing their responses accordingly.
“To investigate the role of feedback loops further, consortium members will implement theoretical methods and calculations from theoretical physics and applied mathematics in order to develop and research models that describe the complicated neural processes that control active sensing,” says Ben-Gurion University Prof. David Golomb, whose research team is one of the groups participating in the project.
Ahissar adds: “The aim of this research is to help gain a better understanding of the brain on the one hand and advance technology on the other. Researchers can use robots as an experimental tool, by building a brain-like system step-by-step, gaining insights into the workings of the brain’s inside components.
“With regard to technological applications, we suggest that it is the multiple closed feedback loops that are the key features giving biological systems an advantage over robotic systems. Therefore, implementing this biological knowledge will, we hope, allow robotics researchers to build machines that are more efficient, which can be used in rescue missions, as well as search missions under conditions of restricted visibility.”
Reprinted by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.