Imitation of movements as a step towards the development of artificial social intelligence for autonomous robots

Kerstin Dautenhahn


Future developments in computer science and robotics technology are expected to change our conception of daily life communication and cooperation with human, as well as with physical or virtual agents. My research direction, which underlies the project be described in the following, aims at outlining modes of social interaction between agents. The project focusses on the investigation of imitation as a prerequisite for the development of individual interactions between autonomous robots. Imitation of movements is used as a basic step towards acquiring new movement patterns and developing social intelligent behavior. While the theoretical background is rooted in the biological and social sciences the project bridges the gap to the engineering domain as it aims at constructing robots in order to experimentally test the theoretical considerations. A methodology for this approach is not available but has to be developed in parallel to the realization of the project.

Background: Social intelligence

Social skills have been mostly regarded as a `side-effect' or neglected so far in those research areas which are dealing with the construction of intelligent artifacts, namely artificial intelligence, robotics and artificial life. Approaches in artificial life on interactions in groups of physical robots prefer the analogy of social insect societies, anonymous organized societies without individual relationships. Many approaches consider other agents only as moving obstacles or as competitors for limited resources. In the same way most research in robotics aims at developing robots with a domain-specific `technical intelligence', e.g., building robots which can use effectively and with high precision a manipulator or identify specific patterns. In contrast, recently, different research proposals and studies have been initiated outlining scenarios for applications of autonomous robots, mainly focussing on service robots, i.e., robots belonging to our daily life, and stressing the need for robots to have complex abilities to interact and communicate with individuals. The recognition of other individuals ('conspecifics') is necessary as a means to control the interactions, to predict the behavior of the `conspecific' and to develop complex social relationships like `aversion' or `attachment'. This research direction is highly motivated by the `social intelligence hypothesis' which derives from primatology research and states that primate intelligence originally evolved to solve social problems and was only later extended to problems outside the social domain. I hypothesize, that this might be one general principle for the evolution of intelligence in natural and artificial systems. Therefore this project focusses on the study of `social dynamics'. I decided to study social intelligence by using `real robots' and, as a basis for social interactions, to study imitation.

Project work: Imitation

Imitation is supposed to be among the least common and most complex natural forms of learning. It plays a crucial role in child development. The judgement `Here is something like me' should enable the individual to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects in order to build up individual contacts and interpersonal relations. Imitation is also used to learn new movement patterns, e.g., ecologically relevant movements. In technical applications movement learning by imitation can be used as a `Programming by Demonstration' technique which provides a means of `implicit' knowledge transfer between different kinds of agents (robots, humans). `Teaching by showing' approaches give examples for `engineering approaches' to imitation. They use an analytic approach of observing, segmenting and classifying the actions of the model, producing a high-level, i.e., symbolic description of the observed movement as a plan to control the movements of the imitator. In my point of view this approach is restricted by the bottleneck of having to map actions to and from a symbolic level to real world, continuous actions. I suppose that this approach will be as effective for real world applications as humans who try to imitate the movements of each other by using only symbolic communication, namely language, via a telephone line. Symbolic descriptions are not expected to be a crucial prerequiste for the development of imitative skills, e.g., young children are experts at imitation before they fully develop their symbolic skills. Alternatively I use a self-observational, bottom-up approach to imitation, i.e., the imitator does not `watch and analyse the other, then acts itself' but rather uses a somehow opposite direction, namely `acts and follows, then analyses its own movements'. While following the first strategy action of the imitator only takes place after the movements of the other have been analysed and transferred to the `own body', namely to the movement capabilities and morphology of the imitator, the second strategy starts with movement from the beginning, following and synchronising the own movements with the model's movements.

Work program, methods and intended results

The project's goal is to study how imitating behavior as described above can be realized in a group of autonomous, self-build fischertechnik robots which follow, keep contact, copy movement patterns of others and recognize other robots by characteristic movement patterns. For instance the robots should learn to avoid other robots with a highly energy-consuming behavior or should learn to keept contact to robots which already know how to approach a recharging station. The robots are controlled using the behavior-oriented approach. The project comprises the theoretical as well as practical investigation of the following research issues:

The project's results within the time available should comprise (1) concretization of movement learning by imitation in a physical realization (building and controlling autonomous robots) and (2) the investigation of social group behavior.

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1996-03-20 Kerstin Dautenhahn