Armed and dangerous, the octopus is also smart

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
May 25, 2011 15:49

Able to keep tabs on so many limbs, octopuses may aid the next-generation robotics, Hebrew University researcher says .

3 minute read.



Dumbo Octopus at the Bloomfield Science Center

dumbo octopus 311. (photo credit: 1999 MBARI)

Scientists who dream of building soft-bodied robots capable of, say, squeezing through rubble to search for earthquake victims, are looking at the octopus for help and have discovered something new.

Octopuses, it seems, are not only good at picking the winners of the World Cup (remember Paul the Germany octopus who picked all the right winners?), but they are smart, too, among the most intelligent of the invertebrates. Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have found for the first time that an octopus is able to coordinate a single one of its eight arms in complex movements. 

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“We are working on octopus motor control in order to better understand how the octopus moves its soft body around so that the robotic engineers can potentially be inspired by biological work to construct a soft-body robot,” Michael Kuba of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation at the Hebrew University told The Media Line.

They have large brains and are fast learners. With eight arms and no rigid skeleton, they perform many tasks like crawling, swimming, mating and hunting. And unlike most animals such as humans – who are restricted in their movements by a rigid skeleton which helps in determining the position of their limbs – octopuses have limitless flexibility.

Kuba and the rest of his team of scientists found that octopuses were able to learn and single out an arm to go into a specific compartment.

“Unless we are smashed drunk, we human usually have a pretty good control of our arms and legs. An octopus does not, and that is for the very simple reason that it has no rigid skeletal structure,” Kuba said. “Skeletal structure supports you, but also limits where you can go.”

Octopuses have been seen opening containers with screw caps, but that was relatively the same talent they had in nature opening seashells for the yummy soft and tasty center. They have large brains, but it had been believed that without a skeleton they had only limited control of their flexible limbs.

Kuba said they built a transparent, Plexiglas maze that proved otherwise.

“They sit under their transparent maze and see one of three compartments that they know contains a food reward. They put one arm into a tube that leads to those three chambers, and then they move the arm out of the water and into one of those three chambers,” Kuba said.

“We found out it was difficult for them, but they managed to learn it. This is completely new finding because so far octopuses failed in each and every task that required them to use an individual arm to accomplish any task like this, even simple things like pulling a lever,” he added. “The novelty is that it is a single arm.”

The completion of this task shows for the first time that an octopus can direct a single arm in a complex movement to a target location. Motor-control issues, such as this, are the basis of an ongoing European Union research project aimed at building a “robot octopus.” To understand how the octopus controls its movements, and to what extent it controls them, is therefore an important base for the design of the control architecture of a robot devoid of a rigid skeleton.

“The robot octopus has been a dream for robotic engineers for quite a while,” Kuba said. “There have been several attempts by American and European groups to make progress in soft-bodied robots because they are potentially useful for many different applications from small soft-bodied arms that can be used as surgery tools and bigger ones that could, like an octopus, squeeze through the rubble of a collapsed building and help as search and rescue devices.”

 “They definitely are quite smart suckers. There is no doubt about that,” Kuba said. “My friend swears that the best way [to cook them] is to put them into a little red wine and garlic and boil them.”


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