“Animals are constantly performing both mechanical and mental processing of the information and energy flows at work in their environment. ‘Embodied intelligence’ refers to the integrated physical problem solving and innovative capabilities that emerge from this interplay.”  

Recently funded, Science of Learning, Innovation and Control Embodied (SLICE) is a diverse consortium with a common research goal: to understand embodied cognition, with the tree squirrel as one of the important models. The Jacobs Lab approach will be to study the development of innovation and cognition in captive juvenile tree squirrels [SQUIRREL SCHOOL] .

PI, Dan Koditschek, University of Pennsylvania with Shu Yang (Penn); Lucia Jacobs (Berkeley); Bob Full (Berkeley); Yuli Barishnikov (Illinois); Noah Cowan (Hopkins); Jim Knierim (Hopkins).

From the website (under development):  

It takes about a year before human infants master their own motor skills well enough to walk. While putting one foot in front of the other seems natural, remaining upright requires subtle shifts of balance throughout the body. Uneven terrain presents an additional challenge, but one that children quickly overcome without much in the way of formal training or guidance. And once they’re up and running, there is no end to the novelty of jumping,  skipping, and climbing skills that kids discover and invent. 

Legged robots don’t have it so easy. Only the most advanced can walk with a smooth, natural gait, and even those can be stymied by a small pile of rubble or sand. They have no capacity for inventing novel behavior at all: each new gait or maneuver must be programmed from scratch. And both humans and robots are put to shame by the average cat, squirrel or gecko, all of which can quickly adapt complex bodily features with manipulations to traverse almost any obstacle whether familiar or completely novel.

We are a team of engineers and scientists aiming to imbue robots with this kind of “embodied intelligence,” developing bio-inspired designs that use limbs as sensors as well as actuators and learn new forms of locomotion based on interactions with their environment. Our five-year goal includes a physical manifestation of the new insights in the form of a parkouring mechanical “squirrel” that will serve as a new paradigm for robot design and behavior. 

Animals’ bodies are exquisitely adapted to their habitats. Evolutionary pressure has resulted in bones, muscles and skin that automatically “solve” physical problems of force, sensation and energetics, allowing their brains to handle more abstract problems of placement, motivation, strategy and novelty. 

For example, squirrels are at home whether on the ground, traversing tree trunks or leaping branch to branch. They use their bodies expertly to solve different physical computations in each new environment. On level ground, their bounding gaits can be stabilized in part by changing their body’s mass distribution. Running down a tree engages mechanisms in squirrels’ ankles that bias the claws to “find” appropriately located grips. A leap is executed in part by tuning leg muscles to the springiness of the branch in the selection of a trajectory. Moreover, squirrels are constantly inventive, deploying suitably modified versions of previously discovered maneuvers as the need arises. 

Engineers barely know how to even formulate, much less achieve such synergy in robot designs and programs. Koditschek’s own Kod*Lab has previously developed a series of agile, bioinspired robots that use their limbs as sensors. The lab has produced a robotic kangaroo-rat, Jerboa, and a spin-off company, Ghost Robotics, which makes Minitaur, a quadrupedal robot that can open doors with a back handspring among other tricks. These robots’ ability to “feel” the world with their limbs gives them uncommonly effective movement over a variety of terrains and the ability to manipulate objects encountered within them.   

To help coordinate efforts across the team and the different disciplines represented, our effort is organized into the following  three Research Concentration Areas (RCA) 

the math that describes the information and energy exchange between the robot and its environment; 

how spatial information is encoded acted upon in biological brains and bodies working togetherRCA 2.i: Animal Learning and InnovationRCA 2.ii: Physiological Studies in Manipulated Environment 

new forms of robot body design, material construction and behavioral control that can take better advantage of what the animals reveal and the mathematics explains about fine-grained sensing and control. RCA 3.i: Morphological Design, Computation RCA3.ii: Morphological Innovation, Control and Behavior