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Interactive biorobotics

Abstract

What can interactive robots offer to the study of social behaviour? Philosophical reflections about the use of robotic models in animal research have focused so far on methods (including the so-called synthetic method) involving robots which do not interact with the target system. Yet, leading researchers have claimed that interactive robots may constitute powerful experimental tools to study collective behaviour. Can they live up to these epistemic expectations? This question is addressed here by focusing on a particular experimental methodology involving interactive robots which has been often adopted in animal research. This methodology is shown to differ from other robot-supported methods for the study of animal behaviour analysed in the philosophical literature, chiefly including the synthetic method. It is also discussed whether biomimicry (i.e., similarity between the robot and the target animal in behaviour, appearance, and internal mechanisms) and acceptability (i.e., whether or not the robot is accepted as a conspecific by the animal) are necessary for an interactive robot to be sensibly used in animal research according to this method.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Water tunnels are facilities for observing fish swimming behaviour: water flows in one direction at a controlled velocity, thus reducing relative positional changes of fish swimming in the opposite direction.

  2. 2.

    The terms “mechanism” and “mechanistic model” are used in this article in the sense clarified by the vast contemporary literature on mechanistic modelling and explanation (see Glennan and Illari 2018 for an up-to-date discussion). No further analysis of these concepts is made here, as this article is concerned neither with mechanistic modelling and explanation nor with the role of robots in testing mechanistic models or explanations (a role which, according to some authors, e.g., Cordeschi 2002; Craver 2010, is occasionally assigned to robots and hybrid systems in neuroscience and animal research).

  3. 3.

    The SM and PO strategies sketched here are akin to explanatory and predictive strategies involving non-robotic, computer simulations of biological and physical phenomena discussed by Weisberg (2013) and Winsberg (2010). A detailed analysis of the SM and PO is beyond the scope of this article (see Datteri 2017 for a more thorough discussion): reference to these strategies is made here only to emphasize the peculiarity of the interactive stimulation strategy relative to more traditional uses of robots in animal research.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks two anonymous referees for their insightful comments and acknowledges with gratitude the suggestions received at the 2019 Conference of the European Philosophy Association (Geneva), at the 2018 Conference of the Italian Association of Cognitive Science (Genova), and during a seminar held at the Center for Logic, Language and Cognition of the University of Torino in 2018, where previous versions of this paper were presented.

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Correspondence to Edoardo Datteri.

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Datteri, E. Interactive biorobotics. Synthese 198, 7577–7595 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02533-2

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Keywords

  • Philosophy of artificial intelligence
  • Methodology of biorobotics
  • Animal-robot interaction
  • Simulations in robotics
  • Research methodologies in the life sciences