"Virtual Robots" Befuddled by Optical Illusions

Joab Jackson
for National Geographic News
October 11, 2007

Look this way, R2D2! Hah—fooled you!

As it turns out, robots—like humans—can be duped by optical illusions, a new study says.

That's because context and experience is everything when it comes to perceiving the world, researchers at University College London found.

"The patterns of light that fall to your eyes are meaningless," said lead study author R. Beau Lotto.

It's your prior experiences that let you know whether to fear or approach what you see, according to Lotto.

For the experiment, Lotto's lab did not build actual robots. (See a photo of a lifelike robot from 2005.)

Rather, the researchers gave commercial software used in some robots the ability to process visual cues into an artificial nerve network.

Although far simpler than our brains, the nerve networks of these "virtual robots" can, with training, mimic how nerve cells of the brain respond to light.

But, Lotto said, "we did not aim to model human perception or the brain explicitly."

Instead, the researchers modeled the patterns of light humans might typically see. The team then let the software "learn" on its own how to recognize these patterns.

Making the Illusion

The researchers exposed the software's nerve network to 10,000 images of varying gray scales placed in overlapping circles, like fallen leaves in a forest.

Continued on Next Page >>


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