Active Touch Sensing in Animals and Robots

Tony J Prescott
University of Sheffield

Abstract: How do animals understand the physical world they live in? One answer, due to Gibson, is that their sensory systems are tuned to pick up relevant affordances for behaviour, but how is it that the brain and the sensory apparatus become suitably adapted to perform this feat?  To cast light on this question we have been investigating active touch sensing in small mammals.  A specific focus has been on the vibrissal (whisker) system, and its emergence through evolution and development, which we are investigating through a combination of (i) ethological studies of behaving animals, (ii) computational neuroscience models of the neural circuits involved in vibrissal processing, and (iii) biomimetic robots embodying many of the characteristics of whiskered animals in their design and control.  This talk will present converging lines of evidence, from these different research strands, for the importance of active control in tactile sensing, and some preliminary ideas as to nature of the understanding of the physical world that animals obtain through this sensing system. Our results will be used to illustrate how experimental and robotic approaches can operate together to advance our understanding of sensorimotor cognition in behaving systems.

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