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Students combine philosophy, psychology, and computer science in Cognitive Robotics

October 16, 2013

Philosophy, psychology, and computer science may not seem like they have a lot in common, but one relatively new course has fused them together to create a hands-on, interdisciplinary experience that resulted in an intelligent robot revolution.

Cognitive Robotics was the topic of a recent faculty forum, in which instructors Steven Huss-Lederman and Robin Zebrowski discussed the objective of the course, its successes, and the importance of its team-taught aspects.

Offered in the spring of 2011 and again in the spring of 2013, Zebrowski originated the course.

“In cognitive science we study the mind, and for a long time no one talked about the body, but now people are saying the body plays an important role in what the mind does,” says Zebrowski, an assistant professor of cognitive science. “The nature of the mind isn’t something psychology alone can answer without philosophy, and it isn’t something philosophy and psychology can answer without the modeling that comes from computer science and robotics and building. You need all these disciplines to even start answering the question.”

While Zebrowski handles the theoretical aspects of the course, she teamed up with Huss-Lederman, an associate professor of computer science, who teaches the computer programming.

On average they spend half the class, held for approximately two hours three times a week, discussing the theory and history and the other half broken up into groups learning principles of programming or constructing the robots.

To appreciate the interconnectedness of the ideas, Huss-Lederman and Zebrowski urge the students to work with classmates from other majors.

“Bringing different ideas and backgrounds often bring different philosophies and orientations to the table,” Huss-Lederman says. “We think of our teaching as a model of how we want the class to go. We’re both there full-time in all the classes working together, and we expect the students to do the same thing.”

Using robot-building kits called Lego MINDSTORMS, the students start off building simple robots before completing the course with much more complex ones. Some of the final projects included robots that were able to draw spider web patterns and mimic sounds like parrots do.

Through these assignments, students have learned−among other concepts−that the environment does a lot more work than they thought and also that the reasoning behind certain behaviors of animals are not as complex as they believed. For example, the students discovered that an intricately designed spider web is actually made using just three simple rules.

“One of the lessons we hope that they’ll walk away with is that humans are probably a lot like that too,” Zebrowski says. “That a lot of our really complex behaviors are much simpler than we like to believe they are.”

Cognitive Robotics, which is supported in part by Mellon grant funds, will next be taught in the spring of 2015, but before then can next be seen on display at Family Discovery Night on Friday, Nov. 8 in the Center for the Sciences.