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Robot ‘baby’ links posture to learning

A study with a robot infant and real babies "shows that the body plays a role in early object name learning, and how toddlers use the body's position in space to connect ideas," says Linda Smith. (Credit: Jiuguang Wang/Flickr)

Using an “infant” robot and real babies, researchers have discovered that posture may be a critical factor in the early stages of memory and learning.

The findings offer a new approach to studying the way “objects of cognition,” such as words or memories of physical objects, are tied to the position of the body.

“This study shows that the body plays a role in early object name learning, and how toddlers use the body’s position in space to connect ideas,” says Linda Smith, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University.

“The creation of a robot model for infant learning has far-reaching implications for how the brains of young people work.”

Robots and children

Using both robots and infants, researchers examined the role bodily position played in the brain’s ability to “map” names to objects. Consistency of the body’s posture and spatial relationship to an object as an object’s name was shown and spoken aloud were critical to successfully connecting the name to the object.

The new insights stem from the field of epigenetic robotics, in which researchers are working to create robots that learn and develop like children, through interaction with their environment.

Anthony Morse, a senior postdoctoral research fellow in the Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems at the University of Plymouth, applied earlier research to creating a learning robot in which cognitive processes emerge from the physical constraints and capacities of its body.

“A number of studies suggest that memory is tightly tied to the location of an object,” Smith says. “None, however, have shown that bodily position plays a role or that, if you shift your body, you could forget.”

Making the connection

To reach these conclusions, the researchers conducted a series of experiments, first with robots programmed to map the name of an object to the object through shared association with a posture, then with children age 12 to 18 months.

In one experiment, a robot was first shown an object situated to its left, then a different object to the right. The process was repeated several times to create an association between the objects and the robot’s two postures. Then with no objects in place, the robot’s view was directed to the location of the object on the left and given a command that elicited the same posture from the earlier viewing of the object.

Then the two objects were presented in the same locations without naming, after which the two objects were presented in different locations as their names were repeated. This caused the robot to turn and reach toward the object now associated with the name.

The robot consistently indicated a connection between the object and its name during 20 repeats of the experiment. But in subsequent tests where the target and another object were placed in both locations—so as to not be associated with a specific posture—the robot failed to recognize the target object.

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When replicated with infants, there were only slight differences in the results: The infant data, like that of the robot, implicated the role of posture in connecting names to objects.

“These experiments may provide a new way to investigate the way cognition is connected to the body, as well as new evidence that mental entities, such as thoughts, words, and representations of objects, which seem to have no spatial or bodily components, first take shape through spatial relationship of the body within the surrounding world,” Smith says.

Additional research is needed to determine whether this study’s results apply to infants only, or more broadly to the relationship between the brain, the body, and memory, Smith says.

The current study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, may also provide new approaches to research on developmental disorders in which difficulties with motor coordination and cognitive development are well-documented but poorly understood.

Viridiana Benitez, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison contributed to the work. The European Union Poeticon++, the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Science Foundation provided funding.

Source: Indiana University