A year ago, researchers at Bielefeld University showed that their software endowed the walking robot Hector with a simple form of consciousness. Their new research goes a step further: they have now developed a software architecture that could enable Hector to see himself as others see him. “With this, he would have reflexive consciousness,” explains Dr. Holk Cruse, professor at the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) at Bielefeld University. The architecture is based on artificial neural networks. Together with colleague Dr. Malte Schilling, Prof. Dr. Cruse published this new study in the online collection Open MIND, a volume from the Mind-Group, which is a group of philosophers and other scientists studying the mind, consciousness, and cognition.
Both biologists are involved in further developing and enhancing walking robot Hector’s software. The robot is modelled after a stick insect. How Hector walks and deals with obstacles in its path were first demonstrated at the end of 2014. Next, Hector’s extended software will now be tested using a computer simulation. “What works in the computer simulation must then, in a second phase, be transferred over to the robot and tested on it,” explains Cruse. Drs. Schilling and Cruse are investigating to what extent various higher level mental states, for example aspects of consciousness, may develop in Hector with this software — even though these traits were not specifically built in to the robot beforehand. The researchers speak of “emergent” abilities, that is, capabilities that suddenly appear or emerge.
Until now, Hector has been a reactive system. It reacts to stimuli in its surroundings. Thanks to the software program “Walknet,” Hector can walk with an insect-like gait, and another program called “Navinet” may enable the robot to find a path to a distant target. Both researchers have also developed the software expansion programme “reaCog.” This software is activated in instances when both of the other programmes are unable to solve a given problem. This new expanded software enables the robot to simulate “imagined behaviour” that may solve the problem: first, it looks for new solutions and evaluates whether this action makes sense, instead of just automatically completing a pre-determined operation. Being able to perform imagined actions is a central characteristic of a simple form of consciousness.
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