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Animals Teach Robots to Find Their Way

By Chris Edwards

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 8, Pages 14-16

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Ademonstration video that veteran University College, London neuroscientist John O'Keefe often presents in lectures shows a rat moving around the inside of a box. Every time the rat heads for the top-left corner, loud pops play through a speaker; those sounds are the result of the firing of a specific neuron attached to an electrode. The neuron only fires when the rat moves to the same small area of the box. This connection of certain neurons to locations led O'Keefe and student Jonathon Dostrovsky to name those neurons "place cells" when they encountered the phenomenon in the early 1970s.

Today, researchers such as Huajin Tang, director of the Neuromorphic Computing Research Center at Sichuan University, China, are using maps of computer memory to demonstrate how simulated neurons fire in much the same way inside one of their wheeled robots. As it moves around a simple cruciform maze, the machine associates places with pictures of milk cartons, cheese, and apples that it encounters. When asked to find those objects, the same neurons fire. Although the robot looks in the direction of each object when it moves to the center of the maze as part of its hunt, Tang says analysis of the simulated neuron shows "the movement is driven by this stored information, rather than visual recognition of the shape."


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