What is Cognitive Robotics?
What is cognitive robotics? This seems like an easy question to answer: cognitive robotics is at the intersection of robotics and cognition. Or: Cognitive Robotics is at the intersection of robotics and cognitive science. However, what does that intersection look like? What, exactly, is the relationship here? Below we will three different ways of looking at this intersection.
1. Probably most intuitive, cognitive robotics is about doing robotics that deals with cognitive phenomena such as perception, attention, anticipation, planning, memory, learning, and reasoning. Now, some people believe that robotics already deals with those phenomena, and are therefore left wondering how cognitive robotics would be any different from robotics, period. However, despite what you see in the movies, most existing robots don't learn, have no memory to speak of, and don't reason. In fact, at this point most existing robots are used in industry (think assembly lines), and most of them don't even have any perceptual abilities at all; they are programmed to do one thing, and one thing only. This kind of robotics we might call Industrial Robotics, and it can be characterized with the 3 D's of robotics: robots that do dull, dangerous, or dirty work, that no human would or can do ... which is exactly why Industrial Robotics is important! However, it is not what we see as Cognitive Robotics. In Cognitive Robotics, we are interested in the kind of robots that are, well ... more cognitive. Robots with the kind of intelligence that humans have. Robots that reason, remember, learn, and that can communicate with humans and with each other. Robots that can be characterized by the 3 C's: Clever, Creative, and Charismatic.
2. Creating such cognitive robots is obviously not an easy task. The field of Artificial Intelligence should clearly be a field we could use here, and in the cognitive robotics courses we teach, and in the Cognitive Robotics research we perform, in the Cognitive Robotics lab we certainly make use of AI techniques. However, another strategy might be to try and have a robot perform tasks the way humans do. That is, we could take our best theories and models from Cognitive Science, and try to apply and implement them in our robots. This could actually be a somewhat different way of looking at Cognitive Robotics, i.e. as the application of cognitive science to robotics. As an example, consider a robot that needs to catch a ball. You might think that a robot would solve this task as follows: take a snapshot (or couple of snapshots), determine the location, direction, and speed of the ball, compute when the ball is going to be where, and compute how to move the arms, legs, and all the other joints of the robot to be at that spot at the right time. Cognitive science research, however, has shown that when people catch a ball, they probably use quite a different strategy, the basic idea of which is that if the ball moves to the left in your field of vision, then you move the left, and if it moves to the right, you move to the right. Of course, this strategy requires one to keep looking at the ball (or at least frequently look), but that is exactly what a typical human does. But the point of the example is this: Cognitive Robotics could be seen as the doing of robotics, informed by Cognitive Science.
3. Of course, as we actually implement Cognitive science theories or models in a robot, we may find that the robot doesn't perform as we thought it would, meaning that maybe our theory isn't as good as we thought it was. In this sense, we can also turn things upside down: instead of cognitive science informing or helping robotics, we can regard the doing of robotics as informing cognitive science. For example, if we have two competing explanations or models for how humans perform certain cognitive tasks, then we could possibly implement each of those models in a robot, and see which robot more closely mimicks human performance. This way, robots can be used as a testbed for cognitive science theories, which is a third way to think about Cognitive Robotics. Finally, though, why should a robot be constrained by doing things the way humans do things? If a robot can do things better or more effective than a human by using a different kind of strategy, isn't that ok? And yes, of course, for most practical purposes that should be indeed be perfectly ok. But notice that even in that case, robots can be used to inform cognitive science. How would that work? Well, the trick is to regard cognitive science as the science of all of cognition, not just human cognition. Indeed, if you think about it, human cognition probably only takes up a very small spot in the whole space of cognition, and a true cognitive science will therefore have to consider kinds of cognition quite unlike human cognition. Well, robots could be a great way to explore those other kinds of cognition. As such, cognitive robotics could be considered a kind of Experimental Cognitive Science.
So what is cognitive robotics? Above we have seen several different ways to look at it: as the creation (engineering) of robots with cognitive abilities, as the creation of such robots using the knowledge of cognitive science, and finally as using robots to inform the field of cognitive science. In our courses, research, and lab, we look at cognitive robotics in all these ways.