With the excitement and activity of A-MAZE calming down, I finally have a moment to write about a rich book that I will want to read again and again- Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology by Valentino Braitenberg. Since it was written in 1984, I’m truly lucky that a colleague from the Gamelier recommended it to me, or else I doubt I would have ever discovered it.
The principle of “Synthetic Psychology” invoked in the title is that relatively simple machines can exhibit complex behavior that we would classify as “living”, “instinctive” ,” willful”, “smart”, “attentive”, etc. The author does this by setting up a series of thought experiments. He begins with a “vehicle” with a single motor activated by a sensor that is attuned to the temperature of its immediate surroundings.
Things get immediately more interesting in the next example, where a vehicle has a motor and a sensor on both sides. Depending how the connections are made between the motors and sensors (same side or crossed), and whether the connection is positive or negative, the vehicles would circle a source of heat, charge right at it, run away from it.
This is only the beginning. Each chapter introduces new layers of complexity into these simple vehicles and then explores how the vehicles would behave in such and such circumstances. He explores non-linear activation, thresholds, connections networks, selection, resistant connections, and many others. Some of these concepts reminded me of the little I learned about neural networks in school, but the author explains each wrinkle gently enough that I don’t believe any prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy it.
Ultimately, the book nicely sidesteps the question of “intelligence” that pollutes common discussions of artificial intelligence. By the time you are in the middle of the book, you have to admit that the machines behave in a way that you only associate with living things, and yet they are made only of sensors, motors, and wire.
The appendix to the book is filled with biological references for the mechanisms introduced as purely mechanical. Given that the book is now 30 years old, It would be interesting to know what new has been discovered since then.
Oh, and there are lovely line drawings placed in the middle of the book that evoke faraway worlds and fantastic machines. This reminds me of what an incredible video game it would make, especially the complex “social” aspects of having a world of such vehicles!