A Robot with Consciousness

If a problem arises, human beings are able to think of different ways of proceeding, test out the consequence of ideas mentally and then decide on the course of action. Since early 2011 researchers at Bielefeld University have been working on enabling robots to also test out their actions via internal simulation. During their research, scientists from the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) have found special skills in the robot they developed. These skills imply that the robot has developed consciousness. This is the conclusion reached by researchers of the EU project EMICAB, which runs out this year.

In order to reach their goal to create a robot that can perform internal simulations the researchers have developed a reactive system based on insects. Hector, a robot that resembles a stick insect, reacts to its environment and can climb over a stone if it is in its way, for example. What’s new about Hector is that researchers have enhanced its system with cognitive components. This enables the stick insect robot to invent new ways of behaviour and to test possible effects via imagined behavior, for example. When a problem arises that the robot cannot solve, then Hector’s cognitive system is activated so that the robot goes through different types of behaviour and considers which of its options are feasible. True to the motto: Think before you act.

‘We have not yet finished building the robot Hector, but the simulation, or in other words its virtual counterpart on the computer, is 90 per cent complete,’ says Professor Holk Cruse, one of the participating researchers. ‘In theory then, we are already very confident that Hector can test actions via internal simulation’ By the end of the project the actual robot, which has not yet been fully constructed, is expected to demonstrate that it has mastered the skill of testing out actions. ‘After we reached our basic goal, we looked at what else the robot could do. This lead to the observation that the robot had developed certain emergent skills which indicates aspects of consciousness’, according to Cruse. ‘Skills are defined as emergent if they have not been explicitly built into the system, but are there, nonetheless.’

Up until now, it has been assumed that emergent skills like those which include the control of awareness and, in addition, consciousness was only possible in complex systems. ‘Our research shows that less complex systems can also develop higher faculties,’ says Malte Schilling, research partner of Holk Cruse. Amongst the aspects of consciousness that the robot has developed are intentions and the so-called global access. Intentions describe conditions, by which behaviour is assigned a goal, for example the search for food. Global access means that memorised elements are available even when actually a different behaviour is being performed. For example, a person who is running is still able to think and do different tasks. ‘These and further elements of consciousness that we found in Hector could be termed by-products, so to say, of the actual research we are carrying out, although very interesting ones,’ says Cruse. ‘They show that important properties of consciousness can exist in very small brains and therefore also in artificial systems,‘ says Cruse.

The research of the Bielefeld researchers is part of the EU research project EMICAB (Embodied Motion Intelligence for Cognitive Autonomous roBots) which focuses on the intelligent motor control of insects and robots. There are five sub-projects in total, two in Bielefeld and one respectively at the University of Southern Denmark, University of Catania (Italy) and the University of Mainz. The project is funded by the Seventh EU Framework Programme (FP7). Over the three-year period of funding over 1.5 million Euros was made available, of which a third was allocated to Bielefeld University.

More information on the Internet at:

Professor Dr. Holk Cruse, Universität Bielefeld
Center of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC)
Phone: +49 521 106-12129
Email: holk.cruse@uni-bielefeld.de