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Novelty Detection for Robot Neotaxis

The ability of a robot to detect and respond to changes in its environment is potentially very useful, as it draws attention to new and potentially important features. We describe an algorithm for learning to filter out previously experienced stimuli to allow further concentration on novel features. The algorithm uses a model of habituation, a biological process which causes a decrement in response with repeated presentation. Experiments with a mobile robot are presented in which the robot detects the most novel stimulus and turns towards it (`neotaxis').


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1 Introduction

Many animals have the ability to detect novelty, that is to recognise new features or changes within their environment. This paper describes an algorithm which learns to ignore stimuli which are presented repeatedly, so that novel stimuli stand out. A simple demonstration of the algorithm on an autonomous mobile robot is given. We term the robot’s behaviour of following the most novel stimulus neotaxis, meaning ‘turn towards new things’, taken from the Greek (neo = new, taxis = follow). A number of different versions of the novelty filter are described and compared to find the best for the particular data used.

Attending to more novel stimuli is a useful ability for a mobile robot as it can limit the amount of data which the robot has to process in order to deal with its environment. It can be used to recognise when perceptions are new and must therefore be learned. In addition, it means that the robot can be used as an inspection agent, so that after training to learn common features it will highlight any ‘novel’ stimuli, i.e., those which it has not seen previously.

1.1 Related Work

A number of novelty detection methods have been proposed within the neural network literature, but they are mostly trained off-line. Particularly noteworthy is the Kohonen Novelty Filter 

[14, 13], which is an auto-encoder neural network trained by back-propagation of error. After training, any presentation to the network produces one of the trained outputs, and the bitwise difference between the input and output shows the novel parts of the input. This work has been extended by a number of authors. For example, Aeyels [1] adds a ‘forgetting’ term into the equations.

Ho and Rouat [11] use a biologically inspired model that times how long an oscillatory network takes to converge to a stable output, reasoning that previously seen inputs should converge faster than novel ones. Finally, Levine and Prueitt [15] use the gated dipole proposed by Grossberg [8, 9] to compare inputs with pre-defined ones, novel features causing greater output values.

2 The Novelty Filter

2.1 Habituation

Habituation is a reduction in behavioural response that occurs when a stimulus is presented to an organism repeatedly. It is present in many animals, from the sea slug Aplysia  [2, 7] through toads [5, 22] and cats [19] to humans [17]. It has been modelled by Groves [10], Stanley [18] and Wang and Hsu [23]. Habitation differs from other processes which decrement synaptic efficacy, such as fatigue, in that a change in stimulus restores the response to its original levels. This process is called dishabituation. There is also a ‘forgetting’ effect, where a stimulus which has not been presented for a long time recovers its response. Further details can be found in [20, 21].

The habituation mechanism used in the system described here is Stanley’s model. The synaptic efficacy, , decreases according to the following equation:


where is the original value of , and are time constants governing the rate of habituation and recovery respectively, and is the stimulus presented. The effects of the equation are shown in figure 1. The principal difference between this and the model of Wang and Hsu is that the latter allows for long-term memory, so repeated training causes faster learning.

Figure 1: An example of how the synaptic efficacy drops when habituation occurs. In the first, descending part of the graph, a stimulus is presented continuously. This changes to at where the synaptic efficacy rises again, and becomes again at , causing another drop. The two curves show different values of the constants, in series 1 and in series 2 . In both, and .

Figure 1

shows the synaptic efficacy increasing again at time 150, when the stimulus is removed. This is effectively a ‘forgetting’ effect, and is caused by a dishabituation mechanism which increases the strength of synapses that do not fire. In the implementation described here this effect can be removed. The experiments reported in section 

4 investigate effects of the filter both with and without forgetting.

2.2 Using Habituation for a Novelty Filter

Figure 2:

The novelty filter. The input layer connects to a clustering layer which represents the feature space, the winning neuron (i.e., the one ‘closest’ to the input) passing its output along a habituable synapse to the output neuron so that the output received from a neuron reduces with the number of times it fires.

The principle behind the novelty filter is that perceptions are classified by some form of clustering network, whose output is modulated by habituable synapses, so that the more frequently a neuron fires, the lower the efficacy of the synapse becomes. This means that only novel features will produce any noticeable output. If the habituable synapses receive zero input (rather than none) during turns when their neuron does not fire, the synapses will ‘forget’ the inhibition over time, providing that this forgetting mechanism (or dishabituation) is turned on.

The choice of clustering algorithm is very important and depends on the data being classified. In this paper, we compare the performance of three different networks, described below, on the robot application. The three networks described were chosen because they performed best on sample data that was selected to be similar to that they would see on the robot. In addition to those described below, the Neural Gas [16] network also performed well, but computational constraints means that it was not possible to run it on the robot.

2.3 Some Possible Clustering Networks

2.3.1 Kohonen’s Self-Organising Map (SOM)

Kohonen’s Self-Organising Map [13] works in the following way:

Every element of the input vector is connected to every node of the map by a modifiable connection. The distance

between the input and each of the neurons in the field is calculated using


where is the input vector at time and the weight between input and the neuron. In a Learning Vector Quantiser [13], used here, the neuron with the minimum is selected and the weight for that neuron and its topological neighbours are updated by:


where is the learning rate, .

Usually, a two-dimensional SOM is used, but in the implementation described here a ring-shaped network, effectively a line with the end neurons linked together, was used. The neighbourhood size and learning rate remained constant so that the system was always learning. The neighbourhood comprised only the nearest neighbours of each neuron, and was fixed at 0.25.

2.3.2 The Temporal Kohonen Map (TKM)

This self-organising map, proposed by Chappell and Taylor [4], is based on Kohonen’s SOM, but uses “leaky integrator” neurons whose activity decays exponentially over time. The exponential decay is controlled by a time constant ( in equations 4 and 5 below). This is similar to a short-term memory, allowing previous inputs to have some effect on the processing of the current input, so that the neurons which have won recently are more likely to win again. In the experiments reported here the value was used, meaning that only the previous 2 or 3 winners had any influence in deciding the current winner. The activity of the neurons is calculated using


and, in a similar way to the SOM, the neuron with the largest activity is chosen as winner, and its weights and those of its topological neighbours updated using the following weight update rule ( and the neighbourhood remained the same):


2.3.3 The –Means Clustering Algorithm

One of the simplest ways to cluster data is by using the –means algorithm [3]. A pre-determined number of prototypes, , are chosen to represent the data, so that it is partitioned into clusters. The positions of the prototypes are chosen to minimise the sum-of-squares clustering function,


for data points . This separates the data into partitions . The algorithm can be carried out as an on-line or batch procedure, with the on-line version, used here, having the update rule


3 Using the Novelty Filter on a Mobile Robot

The robot implementation was designed to show that the novelty filter described in section 2.2 can be used to detect new stimuli. The novelty filter was incorporated into a system where a robot detects and turns towards new stimuli. It was implemented on a Fischer Technik mobile robot, which uses a Motorola 68HC11 microcontroller. The robot has a two wheel differential drive system and four light sensors facing in the cardinal directions.

Figure 3: The Fischer Technik Robot used in the experiments. The light sensors used in the experiments can be seen at the top of the mast towards the front of the robot.
Figure 4: The overall system for choosing the most interesting stimulus. Each sensory perception is classified separately by a novelty filter – which receives an input of present and recent perceptions – and a value indicating the novelty of that stimulus is output. Completely new stimuli are given a higher priority. The most novel stimulus was selected for a response, providing it exceeded a pre-defined threshold.

In the experiments described below, the robot received a number of different light stimuli, which varied in the frequency of the flashes. It classified these stimuli autonomously and decided whether or not to respond (turn towards the source) according to how novel they were. Each of the sensors on the robot, in this case four light sensors, had its own novelty filter, as shown in figure 4. At each cycle, the current reading on each sensor was concatenated with the previous five to form a six element input vector, known as a delay line or lag vector. This vector was classified by the novelty filter and an output produced. In the case of the TKM, which keeps an internal history of previous inputs, only the most recent reading was needed as input.

The output of the filter was a function of how many times that neuron had fired before, due to the habituating synapse. Each of the four novelty filters fed their output to a comparator function which propagated the strongest signal, providing that it was above a pre-defined threshold, to the action mechanism. If none of the stimuli were strong enough, the cycle repeated. Owing to memory constraints, the clustering mechanism was limited to just twelve neurons arranged in a ring. All three of the networks described in section 2.3 were the same size.

A bypass function was associated with each sensor. If a neuron had not fired before (that is, its synapse had not been habituated) the comparator function favoured it, so that the system responded rapidly to new signals. If two new signals were detected simultaneously, the stronger one was used.

4 Experiments and Results

Three separate experiments were carried out. The first, the results of which are shown in figure 5 and table 1, was designed to test the forgetting mechanism as well as the general ability to turn towards novel stimuli. The robot was initially placed in a featureless environment. A light was introduced to project onto one of the light sensors. Once the robot had turned to face this light source, a second, slowly flashing light was added. As this light was more novel, the robot turned towards it. A further, faster flashing light was then introduced, which the robot again faced. Finally, the constant light was switched off and, in the case where a ‘forgetting’ mechanism was used, the robot perceived this lack of stimulus as novel and turned back towards it. Otherwise it did not respond.

Figure 5: Figures showing the behaviour of the robot during the four stages of the first experiment with forgetting. The motion of the robot is shown using the dotted lines. In (a) the robot turns towards the new light, in (b) it turns towards the newer flashing light, and then in (c) to the faster flashing light. Finally in (d) it turns back to the point where the light has been turned off.

In the second experiment, steps (a) and (b) of figure 5 were again followed. However, instead of a faster flash being shown in the third stage, a second flashing light of the same (slow) frequency was shown. If the flashing light was still novel, the robot turned towards this as it was a newer version of the most novel stimulus. However, if the flashing light had ceased to be novel, the robot ignored it.

Finally, instead of a second flashing light in part (c), a second constant light was introduced. Whether or not the robot responded to this depended on whether or not the forgetting mechanism was switched on and which sensor it was on – if it was a sensor which had not previously seen it, the robot responded.

Table 1 shows the reactions of the robot in the three experiments, both with forgetting turned on and off. The constants used for the experiments were: , , and a boredom threshold (i.e., the value below which a stimuli ceased to be novel) of 0.4. The parameters of the networks were kept at the levels found to be optimal in simulations. The overall qualitative results were the same for all three networks, although the SOM took longer to produce consistent output when a new pattern was introduced (owing to the changes in the spatial pattern in the lag vector) while the TKM responded to them quickly.

Experiment Forgetting Stage Action
1 On Constant On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Fast Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Constant Off Robot turns towards it
Off Constant On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Fast Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Constant Off Robot does not respond
2 On Constant On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On If on a different sensor, robot turns towards it
Off Constant On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On If on a different sensor, robot turns towards it
3 On Constant On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Constant On If on a different sensor, robot turns towards it
Off Constant On Robot turns towards it
Slow Flashing On Robot turns towards it
Constant On If on a different sensor, robot turns towards it
Table 1: A description of the robots behaviour in the first series of experiments.

In table 1 it can be seen that particular inputs caused the robot to move even when the stimulus had been seen before. This occurred because the stimulus was on a sensor which had not perceived it previously. This meant that the robot’s attention was changing unnecessarily, so a method to rectify this was devised. When a stimulus is marked as novel the robot rotates through , pausing every , so that each of the novelty filters learns to recognise all the stimuli. This means that the robot reacts to stimuli in the same way regardless of which sensor they impinge on. This functionality can be produced in other ways, such as using one novelty filter to monitor all the sensors and adding additional memory of what each sensor was seeing to turn the robot in the appropriate direction. The output of the network took a few iterations to stabilise for each new input, and the SOM in particular occasionally generated spurious readings, caused by misreading the signals so that the input vector varied. This was usually because the sensor polling could not be precisely timed, so that occasionally the time between readings varied and so an unexpected input was received.

4.1 Further Experiments

In the experiments described previously, all three clustering networks showed similar qualitative results. For this reason, further tests were designed to try and discriminate between the networks. The additional experiments performed involved using flashing lights which flashed at varying speeds. The neotaxis behaviour of the robot remained fixed. Two additional patterns of flashing lights were used, short–short–long–long and short-long-short-long, which the K-Means network and Temporal Kohonen Map both recognised more accurately than the SOM. The TKM in particular dealt with all the stimuli very well, but the SOM was occasionally subject to errors and took longer to respond. The number of patterns which it is possible for the robot to learn and recognise is limited by the size of the network.

5 Conclusions and Future Work

The mechanism described here is capable of recognising features which vary in time and habituating to those that are seen repeatedly. In this way it successfully acts as a novelty filter, highlighting those stimuli which are new and directing attention towards them. This is a useful ability, since it can reduce the amount of data which the robot needs to process in order to deal with its environment. However, in the application described here, the inputs are fairly clean, the environment being designed to produce differentiable inputs.

One of the assumptions that is made in this paper is that the clustering networks used will reliably separate the inputs so that new stimuli cause a new neuron to win, and old stimuli activate the same neuron each time. This is not necessarily true, and the potential problems this highlights need to be investigated. Using a growing network such as the Growing Neural Gas of Fritzke [6] is one solution, as is using a Mixture of Experts [12] in place of the clustering network, each expert recognising a different part of the input space.

In addition, the sensors used here, photocells, are crude and do not give a great deal of information, and the robot has very limited memory. To produce a system which is capable of interacting with real world environments it will be necessary to use more and better sensors. The next step will be to transfer the system onto the Manchester Nomad 200 robot, FortyTwo

, and take advantage of the sensors available, viz. sonar, infra-red and a monochrome CCD camera. Before the novelty filter can deal with this information, sensor inputs will have to be extensively preprocessed, with features extracted from the images. Work using sonar scans taken whilst the robot is exploring an environment have shown success in applying the novelty filter to a real world problem (work to be published).

However, once data about the surrounding environment can be interpreted, the novelty filter presented here can be used in an inspection agent which learns a representation of an environment and can then explore and detect new or changed features within both that and similar environments. This is the ultimate aim of this research.


This research is supported by a UK EPSRC Studentship.


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