PhD offer : Motivated Multi scale Self-Organization for the emergence of coordinated sensorimotor behaviors

PhD proposal, Computer Science
Motivated Multi scale Self-Organization for the
emergence of coordinated sensorimotor behaviors

1 Contacts and location

The PhD thesis will be supervised by :
• Alain Dutech (alain.dutech@inria.f), HdR in computer science
• Jeremy Fix (, PhD in computer science
The PhD thesis will be carried out, administratively, within the Biscuit Team (LORIA) and
physically at the LORIA (Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy) laboratory and within the Metz campus of Cen-

2 Context

A long standing question in cognitive science is how an agent can build up from its experience to
develop new sensorimotor skills in an open-ended exploration and learning from the interactions
with its environment. Some authors suggest that an agent has some innate sensorimotor primitives
(e.g. central pattern generators) (Mussa-Ivaldi and Solla, 2004; Ijspeert, 2008). These primitives, or
reflexes, allow the agent to initiate some basic interactions with the environment. One challenging
question is to know how the agent can build on these interactions, their regularities but also their
unexpected outcomes, to develop new skills and behaviors, in order to increase its “mastery” of the
environment. While artificial intelligence initially focused on the abstract ability of reasoning, this
challenge is at the core of the more recent trend of embodied cognition (Brooks, 1991; Nöe, 2004;
Warren, 2006) that stresses the importance strong coupling between the brain, the body and the
environment in which the agent evolves. The environment exposes to the agent some opportunities
of action but the possibility of the agent to benefit from these opportunities strongly depend on the
motor capabilities of the agent. There is therefore an interdependence between the environment
and the brain/body of the agent and some mechanisms should allow the agent to capture and build
up on this coupling.
There is a mathematically grounded theory, known as reinforcement learning, which addresses
the question of how an agent can learn to behave in an unknown (model free) environment (Sutton
and Barto, 2016). This theory formalizes the notions of reward, policy, value functions and provides
algorithms allowing an agent to learn an optimal behavior with respect to the expected reward it
can receive. The models within the mathematical theory of Reinforcement Learning are originally
formulated with a granularity in time at the level of the interaction. There have been recently some
extension to deal with continuous time (Doya, 2000) but there remains some difficulties regarding
the biological plausibility of these models. Even if the biological plausibility is not necessarily a goal
of the PhD thesis, it remains that the fact that the current models in reinforcement learning are
not biologically plausible suggests that there might be alternative models to account for learning
of sensorimotor behaviors.
In the Neuroscience litterature, there is a wealth of evidence that several deep structures in the
primate brains, known as the basal ganglia, are involved in reward guided sensorimotor learning.
Various factors contribute to this learning of behavior. It is well known since the pioneering work
of (Schultz et al., 1997) that unexpected rewarding events trigger responses of the dopaminergic
neurons in the ventral tegmental area, a structure known to be in close relationship with structures of the basal ganglia. Several work stress the link between these structures and the theory of
reinforcement learning (Niv, 2009). There are other neurotransmitters that might guide learning
(Doya, 2002). Some authors also suggest that there is an interest in guiding learning by some
form of curiosity which shapes how an agent confronts itself with sensorimotor abilities that are
not yet mastered but still learnable (Kalplan and Oudeyer, 2007). In addition to be involved in
reinforcement learning, works in Neuroscience indicate that the behaviors might categorized in
two categories : habits and goal directed behaviors (Graybiel, 2005; Yin and Knowlton, 2006).
Goal directed behaviors, which are sensitive to the desirability of the outcome and the contingency
relationship between the executed action and an obtained outcome, seem to be transferable toward
habits which are less flexible but more quickly executed. These two types of behavior and their
neural substrate are indications on how an agent could increase its vocabulary of sensorimotor

3 Subject

During this thesis, we would like to work with learning models that evolve continuously in time
and that are compatible with the general framework of Reinforcement Learning and see how these
models could allow an agent to build more abstract and complex behaviors.
For example, several works have shown that models specified within the Dynamic Systems
Theory (DST) (Kelso, 1995) can deal with simple sensorimotor behaviors (Beer, 1995; Spencer
et al., 2011). Despite these success, several questions remain opened and these are the kind of
questions we would like to address in this thesis.
Thus, a non exhaustive list of challenging questions we would like to address could be:
• while we know that central pattern generators might be candidates for providing motor
primitives, it is still unclear how a distributed model can build up on these motor primitives
sensorimotor behaviors on a longer time scale;
• how these higher level, more abstract, sensorimotor behaviors could be integrated by the
model to articulate its behavior ?
• how the system could learn even more complex behaviors, in some way, gradually bootstrap-
ping its sensorimotor capabilities ?
• can we make operant the theories of (Warren, 2006; Keijzer, 2001) that advocate anticipative
• is it possible to take inspirations from works on hierarchical reinforcement learning using
options (Sutton et al., 1999; Dietterich, 2000) in a continuous framework ?

4 Expected skills

The PhD student is expected to be open to unconventional bio-inspired computing with some
backgrounds in Machine Learning. As the work of the PhD has its root in cognitive science, we
expect the candidate to be at least curious about philosophy, psychology and biology. This PhD
thesis is not purely theoretical and we expect the candidate to experiment the developed models on
a simulated or real robotic platform. Therefore, programming skills (C++, Python) and familiarity
with a Unix operating system are of primary interest. Also a prior experience with the Robot
Operating System (ROS) and simulated (e.g. V-REP) or real robotic platforms is a plus.


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