Wiggling toward bio-inspired machine intelligence

Juncal Arbelaiz Mugica stands among Roman columns at MIT.
Juncal Arbelaiz Mugica grew up in Spain acutely aware of the privilege of having access to a better education than her parents. Her father earned a degree in economics through independent study while working to support his family. His daughter inherited his persistence. “The hardships my parents experienced made them cherish autodidactism, lifelong learning, and critical thinking. They passed on these values to me.”
Photo: Steph Stephens

Juncal Arbelaiz Mugica is a native of Spain, where octopus is a common menu item. However, Arbelaiz appreciates octopus and similar creatures in a different way, with her research into soft-robotics theory. 

More than half of an octopus’ nerves are distributed through its eight arms, each of which has some degree of autonomy. This distributed sensing and information processing system intrigued Arbelaiz, who is researching how to design decentralized intelligence for human-made systems with embedded sensing and computation. At MIT, Arbelaiz is an applied math student who is working on the fundamentals of optimal distributed control and estimation in the final weeks before completing her PhD this fall.

She finds inspiration in the biological intelligence of invertebrates such as octopus and jellyfish, with the ultimate goal of designing novel control strategies for flexible “soft” robots that could be used in tight or delicate surroundings, such as a surgical tool or for search-and-rescue missions.

“The squishiness of soft robots allows them to dynamically adapt to different environments. Think of worms, snakes, or jellyfish, and compare their motion and adaptation capabilities to those of vertebrate animals,” says Arbelaiz. “It is an interesting expression of embodied intelligence — lacking a rigid skeleton gives advantages to certain applications and helps to handle uncertainty in the real world more efficiently. But this additional softness also entails new system-theoretic challenges.”

Read more at MIT News.

Categories :