June 16, 2011: 12:39 pm: Cognitive Modeling, Presentations, Robotics

Until I can get it embedded correctly, here is the link to our latest research video/submission to AAAI.



July 15, 2009: 6:13 pm: Robotics

Our video won IJCAI’s 2009 Most Informative Shakey Award. I was hoping for a slightly nerdier trophy, but it’s still got some serious heft. Unfortunately, the pawn shop would only offer me $5. :)


“I’d like to thank the Academy..”


June 8, 2009: 2:07 pm: Cognitive Modeling, Robotics

The pub release has cleared, and the video has now been posted. Click on the link to see how I, and the rest of the lab, work to integrate cognitive architectures, sensor systems and robots into a cohesive whole. Or, just gaze at the embed..

December 3, 2008: 11:50 am: Cognitive Modeling, jACT-R, Robotics

ACT-R’s manual-motor system (derived from EPIC) is really starting to show its limitation as we push on it within the embodied robotics domain. I’ve commented elsewhere regarding the a more general implementation of a motor system (not just hands), but that has been falling short. While the future certainly holds radical changes for the perceptual/motor systems, there is still the need for short-term fixes that don’t radically change the architecture.

One such fix that I’ve been playing with recently has been compound motor commands. In jACT-R (and ACT-R proper), motor commands are described by the motor/manual module and their execution is handled by the underlying device. This limits the modeler to those commands and they must be managed at the production level. Typically this requires some measure of goal involvement, as reflex-style productions (i.e. no goal, imaginal, or retrieval) often don’t carry sufficient information to evaluate their appropriateness. Compound motor commands address this by allowing modelers to define their own motor commands that delegate to the primitive commands available. These compound commands can be added to the motor buffer (which will actually contain them), allowing reflex-style productions to merely match the contents of the motor buffer to control the flow of motor execution.


The following compound command takes a configural identifier, which allows it to reference a specific spatial representation in the configural buffer. It uses this information to direct turn and walk commands (provided by PlayerStageInterface) in order to approach the target.

(chunk-type pursue-target-command (:include compound-motor-command)

( configural-id nil ) ;; who’s our target

( distance-tolerance 0.2 );; get w/in 20cm of target

( angular-tolerance 5 ) ;; get the target w/in 10 deg arc

( state busy ) ;; command, not module state

( remove-on-complete t ) ;; when complete -motor

( no-configural-is-error nil )) ;;empty configural buffer should be an error

There are then seven simple reflex-style productions that turn and move the model towards the target. That set even includes an error recovery (which is incredibly important if you’re actually acting in an environment):

(p pursue-target-attempt-recovery


   isa pursue-target-command


state error ;; module, not command



   state error ;; command, not module



isa walk

   distance -0.25 ;;jump back


This reusable compound command and its productions are used in multiple models by merely making a +motor request after verifying that the motor buffer is empty and free:

(p pursuit-attend-succeeded-match


   isa pursue

step searching

target =target


   isa visual-object

token =target


   isa configural

identifier =target

center-bearing =bearing


   – state busy

buffer empty



isa pursue-target-command

   configural-id =target







isa forage


This mechanism carries with it a handful of useful characteristics beyond giving modelers a higher-level of motor control and abstraction.

Perception-Action Loops

With the exception of the mouse movement command, all motor commands in ACT-R are decoupled from perception. At the lowest level this is a good thing (albeit a challenge: using radians to control key targets for fingers?). However, there is ample evidence that perception and action are tightly coupled. The previous example establishes an explicit link between a to-be-monitored percept and an action. A similar mechanism could be used for the monitoring used to control steering in driving. I’m currently working on similar commands to keep our new robots continuously fixated on the object of visual-attention, complete with moving eyes, head, and body. When our visual system is able to recognize the robot’s own hands, guided reaching becomes a difference reduction problem between the hand’s and target’s spatial representations.

Parameterized commands

The previous example uses two slot-based parameters to control the execution of the compound command. To the extent that they are propagated to the underlying primitive commands, ACT-R’s underlying learning mechanisms present possible avenues for a model to move from motor babbling to more precise control.

Further Separation of Concerns

One of my underlying principles in modeling is to separate out concerns. One aspect of this is trimming productions and goal states to their bare minimum, permitting greater composition of subsequent productions. Another aspect is the generalization of model components to maximize reuse. Compound commands permit the motor system to access limited state information (i.e. what spatial percept to track), offloading it from the goal or task state structures, simultaneously simplifying and increasing reusability.

This quick modification has dramatically simplified our modeling in complex, embodied environments. It is, in principle, consistent with canonical ACT-R. The only change necessary is to allow the motor buffer to contain a chunk (as it currently does not). In terms of short-term fixes, this has some serious bang-for-the-buck.

This change has already been made in the current release of jACT-R, should anyone want to play with them.

May 6, 2008: 3:23 pm: Errata, jACT-R, Robotics

I am. I am.

Surprise, surprise, my previous rant was completely unjustified. Turns out it was my own stupid fault. I was programmatically launching player, unfortunately I forgot to harvest the program’s stdout and stderr. The process’s buffers were flooded. Stooopid Ediot!

But, at least the monkey sims can run for much longer now. And not a moment too soon as the robot lab is rapidly filling with interns. (It’s such a nice change of pace to no longer be on the bottom of the totem pole)

May 5, 2008: 3:59 pm: Errata, jACT-R, Robotics

I love division of labor, it saves us all from having to reinvent the wheel.. but sometimes it just drives me insane.

I’ve hooked up player/stage through a java client, enabling jACT-R (and the monkey models) to interact in the simulated robotic environment. For sometime now I’ve had a bug where stage would freeze after around four minutes of simulated time. I initially thought it was due to my unorthodox use of the client (the threading model in the client is a tad weak), so I reverted it back to the normal usage and the simulations were now running past four minutes with no problem. Yay, problem fixed!

Nope. Now it dead locks around 6 minutes. So maybe it’s a problem with stage? Lo and behold, someone else was encountering a similar problem. The recommended fix? Upgrade to playerstage 2.1, which is, of course, not support by the client yet and no one has posted any word on an ETA.

I am able to detect when it occurs, which lead me to believe that I’d be able to disconnect the clients and reconnect. Unfortunately, the only way to resurrect stage at this point is to completely kill the socket owning process. My only option is to not only disconnect the clients, but then force quit stage and restart it.. Ick!

I think it’s time to work on something else for a little while.

* This is not meant as a disparagement of anyone’s work, rather just me venting. I fully acknowledge that the same statements could be- (and probably have been-) applied to my own work.

March 5, 2008: 3:20 pm: Cognitive Modeling, jACT-R, Robotics

Last week marked the first major deadline that I’ve had here at NRL. The boss man was presenting our work at a social cognition workshop that was populated by cognitive and developmental psychologists plus some roboticists. From his report, it was an interesting interchange.

Our push leading up to it were some model fits of the monkey models plus demos of the robot running the models. The fits didn’t happen (bug in common reality that I’m working on currently), but the movies did (and should be posted soon). The final push towards the deadline has highlighted a few architectural divergences between jACT-R and ACT-R proper that I need to address. Those differences that are clearly mistakes will be patched, but those that are architectural decisions will likely be parameterized.

The post-workshop debriefing has produced some interesting discussions around here regarding the nature of theory of mind and meta-cognition more generally. Some of my early brain-storming regarding concurrent protocols seems like it really will set the stage for a general meta-cognitive capacity. Production compilation, threaded cognition, and a carefully designed declarative task description can get us really close to this goal. However, I suspect there are two pieces that need to be developed: variablized slot names and the ability to incrementally assemble a chunk specification (i.e. module request). I throw out this tantalizing bit with the promise that I will post a very lengthy consideration of this issue in the immediate future (I need to put together the pieces that currently exist and see how it plays out).

My insomnia development of the production static analyzer and visualizer is coming along nicely. Below are two screenshots from the analysis of the handedness model (which uses perspective taking to figure out which hand another person is holding up). The first shows all the positively related productions and their directions (i.e. which production can possibly follow which), with the selected production in yellow and its possible predecessors in blue and successors in green. The icons in the top-right corner show the filters for showing all, sequence, previous and next productions, plus positive, negative and ambiguous relationships. There are also configurations for layouts and zoom levels. Double clicking the production will switch the view to sequence which filters out all the other productions that are not directly related to the focus, across a configurable depth (1 currently).

All productions visualized Focus on the selected

I’m still not handling chunktype relationships, and I also need to provide buffer+chunktype transformations (i.e. +visual> isa move-attention doesn’t place a move-attention into the visual buffer, but a visual-object instead). Once those are in place, I’ll add a chunktype filter to the visualizer so that you can focus on all productions that depend upon a specific chunktype, which will help really complex models (the monkey model, with all of its contingency and error handling is around 90 productions, all nicely layered by hierarchical goals, but that’s still a boat load of productions to have to visualize at once)

I’m hoping to get a bunch of this menial development and fixes done on the flight to/fro Amsterdam for HRI. If all goes well, there should be a groovy new release in two weeks.

November 5, 2007: 12:30 pm: Cognitive Modeling, Robotics, Spatial Reasoning

One thing I really like about working here at NRL is that they bring in researchers. It’s just like university research where you can actually keep abreast of current work. This morning we had David Kieras, father of EPIC, talk about some issues surrounding active visual systems.

One of the major differences between EPIC and ACT-R is that the former focuses much more heavily on embodied cognition and the interactions between perception and action (ACT-R’s embodiment system was largely modeled on EPIC’s).

Not surprisingly, one of the big issues with cognitive robotics is the perception/action link and how far up/down do we model it. Taking driving for instance, or rather, the simpler task of staying on the road. One could postulate a series of complex cognitive operations taking speed and position into account in order to adjust the steering wheel appropriately. Early drivers seem to do something like this, but experienced drivers rely on a much simpler solution. By merely tracking to visual points in space, one can just use an active monitoring process to make continual, minor adjustments.

In ACT-R this is modeled with rather simplistic goal-neutral productions (there are goals, but they aren’t really doing much cognitive processing) – it’s just a perception/action cycle. EPIC would accomplish it in a similar manner, but since productions fire in parallel, EPIC would be better able to interleave multiple tasks while driving (but the new threaded extension to ACT-R would accomplish something similar).

If we take embodiment seriously, then we have to ask how much of each task can (at an expert level of performance) be decomposed into these perceptual/action loops? and do these loops function as self monitoring systems without any need for conscious control (as ACT-R currently models it).

Let’s look at a visual navigation task – although navigation is probably a poor term. This is moving from one point to another where the destination is clearly visible. There isn’t much navigation, perhaps some obstacle avoidance, but certainly not “navigation” in the cognitive-mapping sense. Anyway..

A cognitive solution would be to extract the bearing and distance to the target, prepare a motor movement, and execute it. If something goes wrong, handle it. A perceptual/action loop solution would be much simpler, move towards the target, adjusting your bearing to maintain the object in the center of the FOV and stop once close enough.

The robot utilizes the first solution: it takes the bearing and distance to the target and off-loads the actual work to a SLAM-like processing module on the robot that does the navigation. Once it arrives, it notifies the model and all is good. This lets the model perform other work with no problems.. but the perceptual/action loop seems a more appropriate route. The challenge is in how much processing the model is performing. It’s work should be relatively limited so that it can perform other tasks..

Hmmm.. more thought is necessary.