20 March 2018

Braitenberg Vehicles

Fascination with the brain often starts with a fascination for understanding behavior, and how the brain of living organisms evolved in relation to their environment. How does the brain generate behavior and how can behavior emerge from physical rules?

Together with the Open Science Hub in beautiful Barca d’Alva, we raised awareness to these questions by inviting students, teachers, and the community at large to create, design, and manipulate the brain of artificial creatures.

Vehicles 2a, 2b

The outline of the workshop followed closely the progression laid out in Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology, a seminal work by the neuroscientist Valentino Braitenberg. In this small but quite inspiring book, Braitenberg shares beautiful speculations on how artificial living organisms might have developed complex behavior using incredibly simple rules which he lays out in detail.

During the course of a week, students came to the Open Science Hub to assemble their own reconfigurable Braitenberg vehicle. To do this, we used the flexible architecture of the Farrusco platform which allows direct rewiring of the connection between light, touch, and distance sensors with a pair of brushless DC motors, making Farrusco an ideal basis for running these experiments.

The workshop sessions culminated in a hackathon for the local community, where participants observed first hand the emergence of complex behavior and movement. By simply rewiring the brain of these robots using different patterns of excitatory and inhibitory connections, the robots were able to develop steering behaviors and freely navigate around their surroundings, seeking specific stimuli, while avoiding others. Everyone also learned how their own robotic creations relate to existing biological neural circuits that have been mapped in animals, and how behavior complexity and flexibility relates to the external environment.

These activities were developed in the context of the Brain Awareness Week. Funding for this workshop was generously granted by the Dana Foundation and FENS.