21st Century : Robotics : NOMAD - The Thinking Robot
NOMAD - The Thinking Robot
it is not science fiction. Researchers at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla have designed a machine that thinks.
The machine's brain is called Darwin, after the 19th century biologist who conceived the theory of natural selection. Under Institute director and Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, M.D., Ph.D., the Darwin series of thinking brains began in the mid-1980s. Today, Darwin 6 consists of a realistically designed simulation of a nervous system housed in a mobile platform called NOMAD (Neurally Organized Mobile Adaptive Device).
The research is conducted in the Institute's W.M. Keck Foundation Laboratory of Machine Psychology. Established in 1998 with a grant of $1.5 million from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, the Keck Laboratory studies the neural bases of behavior and how the brain reacts and adapts to a changing world. Its objective is to develop a new generation of powerful models of brain activity. Unlike a robot, NOMAD is an autonomous "being," used as a tool to study how the brain controls behavior. According to neuroscientist Jeffrey Krichmar, Ph.D., NOMAD is at the behavioral level of an infant.
"NOMAD starts naive and learns from experience. It has a preference for light and a specific taste, but no other experience or programming." Krichmar explained.
NOMAD's behavior is controlled by the activity of its simulated brain cells, allowing researchers a unique window into how the human brain works and how brain mechanisms produce the range of behaviors associated with higher brain functions. NOMAD can interact with its environment by sensing light and taste and by moving around and grabbing play blocks with striped or spotted patterns.
"Since NOMAD is attracted to light, it will steer toward a block and pick it up. When it grabs the striped block, it gets an electrical charge," explained chief engineer James Snook.
"In the simulated brain, this conductivity registers as good taste. Blocks with spots give no charge, hence, bad taste. As NOMAD's gripper holds the block, the brain associates the taste with the pattern it sees. After learning, it will stop picking up bad tasting blocks. It will approach them and after seeing the pattern, will remember that they taste bad and move away."
"We are adding a third sense to NOMAD's repertoire; an auditory system," said Krichmar. The simulated auditory system has areas to categorize and locate a sound, he added. A tone is associated with the taste of the block (high-pitched from a striped block, low-pitched from a spotted block). When the block detects NOMAD's presence, it starts to beep.
Future plans are to give NOMAD a long-term memory that will enable it to remember objects and events and put them into context.
"Our main objective is to use NOMAD to test theories of the brain," Krichmar explained. "By analyzing its brain we hope to better understand how the human brain works. With this brain we can also model neurological diseases."
The implications of this research may include the development of better diagnostic tools for patients with neurological diseases, and improved methods for learning.
"Perhaps most exciting," Snook added, "will be the development of new pattern-recognition devices, based on the brain, that will communicate with digital computers."
Other discoveries at The Neurosciences Institute include demonstrating that fruit flies sleep, which could offer clues into sleep disorders. The Institute also showed that instinctive behavior can be transferred between one species of animal to another by transplanting early brain regions of the quail to chickens.
Founded in 1981, The Neurosciences Institute is an independent, non-profit scientific research organization that studies the biological bases of higher brain functions, such as consciousness and memory. It is supported entirely by private donations.
The Neurosciences Institute Website