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How to make a robot revolution using philosophy, psychology and computer science

October 17, 2013

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

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

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 where instructors Steven Huss-Lederman and Robin Zebrowski discussed the objective of the course, it successes and the importance of its team-taught aspects.

First taught in the spring of 2011 and again in the spring of 2013, the course originated from Zebrowski whose graduate school colleagues ran a similar one.

“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,” said Zebrowski, an associate 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 said. “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 said. “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.

SOURCE: Steven Huss-Lederman is an associate professor of computer science. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Maryland and his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the California Institute of Technology. Prior to coming to Beloit, he was a co-principal investigator at the Supercomputing Research Center and an associate scientist and faculty associate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison computer sciences department. Some of his interests include linking computer science courses to other disciplines; technology, ethics and privacy; and the advancement of women and minorities in computer science. Huss-Lederman can serve as a media resource on his teaching and research interests.

SOURCE: Robin Zebrowski is an associate professor of cognitive science who teaches in the philosophy, psychology and computer science departments at Beloit College. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and English from Rutgers University; her master’s degree in philosophy, computers and cognitive science from Binghamton University; and her master’s degree and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oregon. Zebrowski can serve as a media resource on topics including embodied cognition, the philosophy of artificial intelligence and cyborg theory.