Making hesitant strides in developing artificial intelligence that is inspired by biology

Juncal Arbelaiz Mugica was born and raised in Spain, where octopus is a staple in many dishes. Arbela, on the other hand, has a unique perspective on octopuses and related organisms according to her work in the field of soft robotics theory.

Each of an octopus’ eight limbs has some degree of independence, and together they make up more than half of the animal’s nerves. Arbela, whose current study focuses on designing decentralized intelligence for human-made systems with embedded sensing and computation, was attracted by this system’s distributed sensing and information processing capabilities. Arbela is an applied math Ph.D. candidate at MIT, where she is finishing up her research on the foundations of optimal distributed control and estimation.

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She hopes to one-day design novel control strategies for flexible “soft” robots that could be used in tight or delicate environments, such as a surgical tools or for search-and-rescue missions, and draws inspiration from the biological intelligence of invertebrates like octopus and jellyfish in the process.

Soft robots can dynamically adapt to new settings because of their pliable nature. “Consider invertebrates like worms, snakes, and jellyfish and contrast their mobility and adaptability to those of vertebrates,” explains Arbelaiz. “It’s a cool demonstration of embodied intelligence; the flexibility gained by not having a hard skeleton can be useful in a variety of contexts and makes dealing with the uncertainty of the actual world easier. However, new system-theoretic difficulties arise as a result of this increased suppleness.

To achieve movement, the muscles receive motor commands from the “controller,” which in biology is typically thought of as the brain or central nervous system. Like several other soft organisms, jellyfish do not have a brain or other centralized nervous system. This realization has prompted her to pursue the notion whereby soft-robotic systems could be controlled through the distributed exchange of sensory information.

Wiggling toward bio
Wiggling toward bio

She explains that it can be challenging to establish centralized intelligence when sensing and actuation are dispersed throughout the robot’s body and onboard computational resources are restricted. Therefore, we require decentralized systems that guarantee the desired global behavior despite exchanging sensory input solely at the local level. The jellyfish is a stunning example of a biological system with a decentralized control architecture since it can move around without a (centralized) brain. As a comparison to the machines we’ve built, this is fascinating.

A fluid transition to MIT

She worked with MIT Professor John Bush in fluid dynamics after meeting him during her graduate studies at the University of Navarra in San Sebastian. He asked Arbelaiz to study droplet interactions as a visiting student at MIT in 2015. As a result, she decided to get her Ph.D. from MIT, and she and her coauthor published their findings in Physical Review Fluids in 2018.

Since 2018, she has been working on her doctorate at the multidisciplinary Sociotechnical System Research Center (SSRC), under the guidance of Ali Jadbabaie, JR East Professor of Engineering and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Anette “Peko” Hosoi, Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics, and Associate Dean of the School of Engineering. Bassam Bamieh, associate director of UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Control, Dynamical Systems, and Computation, and Arbelaiz collaborate frequently.

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According to her, being able to work with this group of advisors allows her the independence to pursue the interdisciplinary research topics to which she has been drawn for the previous five years.

To achieve this goal, she employs system-theoretic approaches, such as the design of novel optimal controllers and estimators for systems with spatiotemporal dynamics and the acquisition of a fundamental understanding of the sensory feedback communication topologies necessary for optimal control of such systems. It boils down to prioritizing which sensory measures are most necessary to best trigger each of the robot’s “muscles” when used in soft-robotic applications.

Did the robot’s performance suffer when just nearby sensory data was available to each actuator? She has studied the trade-off between closed-loop performance, uncertainty, and complexity in geographically dispersed systems.

“I am determined to find a way to unite the fields of machine autonomy, systems theory, and biological intelligence,” she says.

Next Chapter

Arbela will be able to continue his research into the overlap between biological and artificial intelligence thanks to a two-year Schmidt Science Fellowship he was awarded.

During her postdoc at Princeton University, she will be working with Professor Naomi Leonard and others in the fields of systems biology, computer science, and robotics to investigate the resilience and dependability of biological and artificial ensembles. The safety concerns associated with human-made systems, such as autonomous robotics, motivate her research into effective adaptation in biological systems.

The synergy of systems theory, computation, and (neuro)biology will pave the way for “an unprecedented revolution” in autonomous and intelligent devices, she believes.

Paying it forward

Arbela was raised in Spain with a keen awareness of the privilege of receiving a higher education than her parents. Her dad put himself through college by studying economics on his own time while still working to provide for the family. The doggedness he possessed was passed on to his daughter.

The difficulties they faced “shaped their appreciation for self-directed learning, lifelong education, and analytical rigor,” she explains. They instilled these traits in me, and as a result, I became a hard worker with a love for learning and a fascination with science.

She wants to help kids in STEM fields who don’t have many role models or resources, so she mentors them. Mentoring, she believes, “may be the essential impetus to inspire underrepresented minorities to seek professions in STEM.” “I believe that we should promote brilliance everywhere.”

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She is active in the STEM women’s community, having served on the executive committees of Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT) and MIT Women in Mathematics and spoken at numerous events. At the MIT Museum’s Girl’s Day programs, she conducts live experiments on children.

“As scientists, we must disseminate our findings, educate the public on the significance of new findings, and advocate for increased funding for scientific inquiry.”

Arbela also contributes to MIT’s Covid-19 outreach efforts by translating John Bush’s MIT Covid-19 Indoor Safety app into Basque and giving seminars about the mathematical modeling of the virus.

She attributes her motivation to share her STEM expertise with others to what she learned at MIT.

She says, “MIT has been one of the best experiences of my life so far: it has given me enormous intellectual, professional, and personal progress.” In his own words, “I share MIT’s taste for collaborative and multidisciplinary research, the appeal to intellectual challenges, and the excitement for advancing science and technology to the benefit of humanity.”

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