Mental Imagery in Humanoid Robots
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Mental imagery presents humans with the opportunity to predict prospective happenings based on own intended actions, to reminisce occurrences from the past and reproduce the perceptual experience. This cognitive capability is mandatory for human survival in this folding and changing world. By means of internal representation, mental imagery offers other cognitive functions (e.g., decision making, planning) the possibility to assess information on objects or events that are not being perceived. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that humans are able to employ this ability in the early stages of infancy.
Although materialisation of humanoid robot employment in the future appears to be promising, comprehensive research on mental imagery in these robots is lacking. Working within a human environment required more than a set of pre-programmed actions. This thesis aims to investigate the use of mental imagery in humanoid robots, which could be used to serve the demands of their cognitive skills as in humans. Based on empirical data and neuro-imaging studies on mental imagery, the thesis proposes a novel neurorobotic framework which proposes to facilitate humanoid robots to exploit mental imagery. Through conduction of a series of experiments on mental rotation and tool use, the results from this study confirm this potential.
Chapters 5 and 6 detail experiments on mental rotation that investigate a bio-constrained neural network framework accounting for mental rotation processes. They are based on neural mechanisms involving not only visual imagery, but also affordance encoding, motor simulation, and the anticipation of the visual consequences of actions. The proposed model is in agreement with the theoretical and empirical research on mental rotation. The models were validated with both a simulated and physical humanoid robot (iCub), engaged in solving a typical mental rotation task. The results show that the model is able to solve a typical mental rotation task and in agreement with data from psychology experiments, they also show response times linearly dependent on the angular disparity between the objects. Furthermore, the experiments in chapter 6 propose a novel neurorobotic model that has a macro-architecture constrained by knowledge on brain, which encompasses a rather general mental rotation mechanism and incorporates a biologically plausible decision making mechanism. The new model is tested within the humanoid robot iCub in tasks requiring to mentally rotate 2D geometrical images appearing on a computer screen. The results show that the robot has an enhanced capacity to generalize mental rotation of new objects and shows the possible effects of overt movements of the wrist on mental rotation. These results indicate that the model represents a further step in the identification of the embodied neural mechanisms that might underlie mental rotation in humans and might also give hints to enhance robots' planning capabilities.
In Chapter 7, the primary purpose for conducting the experiment on tool use development through computational modelling refers to the demonstration that developmental characteristics of tool use identified in human infants can be attributed to intrinsic motivations. Through the processes of sensorimotor learning and rewarding mechanisms, intrinsic motivations play a key role as a driving force that drives infants to exhibit exploratory behaviours, i.e., play. Sensorimotor learning permits an emergence of other cognitive functions, i.e., affordances, mental imagery and problem-solving. Two hypotheses on tool use development are also conducted thoroughly. Secondly, the experiment tests two candidate mechanisms that might underlie an ability to use a tool in infants: overt movements and mental imagery. By means of reinforcement learning and sensorimotor learning, knowledge of how to use a tool might emerge through random movements or trial-and-error which might reveal a solution (sequence of actions) of solving a given tool use task accidentally. On the other hand, mental imagery was used to replace the outcome of overt movements in the processes of self-determined rewards. Instead of determining a reward from physical interactions, mental imagery allows the robots to evaluate a consequence of actions, in mind, before performing movements to solve a given tool use task.
Therefore, collectively, the case of mental imagery in humanoid robots was systematically addressed by means of a number of neurorobotic models and, furthermore, two categories of spatial problem solving tasks: mental rotation and tool use. Mental rotation evidently involves the employment of mental imagery and this thesis confirms the potential for its exploitation by humanoid robots. Additionally, the studies on tool use demonstrate that the key components assumed and included in the experiments on mental rotation, namely affordances and mental imagery, can be acquired by robots through the processes of sensorimotor learning.
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