… or why we are building a zoo of artificial mice.
Neurorobotics is about connecting simulated brains to virtual and physical robot bodies. Differently from other approaches in robotics or machine learning, the focus is on high biological plausibility, i.e. a neurorobotic system is designed to capture and predict the quantitative behavior of its biological counterpart as closely as possible. However, what is exactly meant by “close” depends on the granularity of the brain model. Clearly, simple neural networks with only a few neurons can be studied on an equally simple robot. In case of the Braitenberg vehicle experiment on the Neurorobotics Platform, a mobile robot platform with four wheels and a camera is perfectly sufficient. By contrast, brain simulations that are comprised of millions of neurons require realistic body models to simulate and reproduce data from neuroscience as accurately as possible. In this context, standard robots are no longer a viable choice. Neurorobotics is therefore not only about connecting a robot body to a brain but also about the design, simulation, and construction of that body.
The brain models developed in the Human Brain Project are among the most complex and realistic ones ever built and therefore it is only logical that they require the most realistic body models ever built. But how does the perfect body model look like? The answer is both simple and tricky: Since most of the data in neuroscience is obtained from rodents, particularly mice, the perfect choice for the body model is to simulate a mouse body. The tricky part is to determine the level of detail that is necessary to provide meaningful embodiment for the brain models. We are therefore currently designing and building a zoo of different mouse models, each of which serves a specific purpose.
The maximum level of biological detail can only be achieved in simulation. For this reason, we are developing a virtual mouse body that not only looks like a real mouse but that also has the same biomechanical properties. Every bone of the skeleton was modeled individually based on bones of real mice. Combined with the musculoskeletal simulation that will soon be available in the Neurorobotics Platform, the skeleton will enable realistic biomechanical simulations.
The latest version of the virtual mouse got a soft skin that is fitted to the skeleton. Together with the recently added simulation of the fur, our mouse is almost indistinguishable from its biological colleagues!
Unlike simulation, the real world imposes many constraints on the types of robots that can be built. However, having a physical counterpart to our virtual mouse is beneficial for many reasons. It not only enables direct interaction with the robot but is in particular also a first step to applying results from neurorobotics research in real-world applications. Our first prototype of the mouse robot was built with a focus on small size and biomimetic leg design for robust locomotion. Upcoming releases will not only feature improved mechanics but in particular also include more sensors. Follow our blog to see how our mouse is slowly growing up!
Many thanks to Matthias Clostermann, Eva Siehmann, and Peer Lucas for their contributions!
Florian Walter, Technical University of Munich
October 13, 2017