So, Where’s My Robot?

Thoughts on Social Machine Learning


Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s an important concept for social robots because it is the foundation of any human interaction. I can’t see what’s going on in your brain, so in order to interact with you, I have to infer your mental states based on my own perceptions and experiences.

This philosophy of Theory of Mind is known as “Simulation Theory,” and the neural basis of this theory is the mirror neuron. Until recently these neurons had only been specifically identified in lab monkeys. But this week an article in the Science Journal reports on Dr. Iacoboni’s work at UCLA, published in a PLoS ONE article.

“Preliminary data from unpublished experiments this spring suggest that researchers at UCLA, probing the exposed brain tissue of patients undergoing neurosurgery, for the first time have isolated individual human brain cells that act as mirror neurons…”

Mirror neurons can be thought of as “subconscious seeds of social behavior…Located in the brain’s motor cortex, which orchestrates movement and muscle control, the cells fire when we perform an action and also when we watch someone else do the same thing. When someone smiles or wrinkles her nose in distaste, motor cells in your own brain associated with those expressions resonate in response like a tuning fork, triggering a hint of the feeling itself.”

Robotics researchers have recently been inspired by simulation theory in thinking about action understanding and imitation. From an engineering standpoint the idea of repurposing generative mechanisms for recognition is elegant. Some of the open questions I think are interesting: how to do the mapping of perception to action; how to do both action generation and inference at the same time, or at least multi-tasked in a way that signals don’t get crossed; among others.

August 20th, 2007 Posted by | In the News, Situated Learning | no comments

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