Quantifying Morphological Computation based on an Information Decomposition of the Sensorimotor Loop

03/17/2015 ∙ by Keyan Ghazi-Zahedi, et al. ∙ Max Planck Society 0

The question how an agent is affected by its embodiment has attracted growing attention in recent years. A new field of artificial intelligence has emerged, which is based on the idea that intelligence cannot be understood without taking into account embodiment. We believe that a formal approach to quantifying the embodiment's effect on the agent's behaviour is beneficial to the fields of artificial life and artificial intelligence. The contribution of an agent's body and environment to its behaviour is also known as morphological computation. Therefore, in this work, we propose a quantification of morphological computation, which is based on an information decomposition of the sensorimotor loop into shared, unique and synergistic information. In numerical simulation based on a formal representation of the sensorimotor loop, we show that the unique information of the body and environment is a good measure for morphological computation. The results are compared to our previously derived quantification of morphological computation.



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1 Introduction

Morphological computation is discussed in various contexts, such as DNA computing and self-assembly (see Pfeifer et al., 2007b; Hauser et al., 2012, for an overview). In this publication, we are interested in quantifying morphological computation of embodied agents which are embedded in the sensorimotor loop. Morphological computation, in this context, is described as the trade-off between morphology and control (Pfeifer and Scheier, 1999), which means that a well-chosen morphology, if exploited, substantially reduces the amount of required control (Montúfar et al., 2014). Hereby, a morphology refers to the agent’s body, explicitly including all its physiological and physical properties (shape, sensors, actuators, friction, mass distribution, etc.) (Pfeifer, 2002). The consensus is that morphological computation is the contribution of the morphology and environment to the behaviour, that cannot be assigned to a nervous system or a controller. There are several examples from biology, which demonstrate how the behaviour of an agent relies on the interaction of the body and environment. A nice example is given by Wootton (1992, see p. 188), who describes how “active muscular forces cannot entirely control the wing shape in flight. They can only interact dynamically with the aerodynamic and inertial forces that the wings experience and with the wing’s own elasticity; the instantaneous results of these interactions are essentially determined by the architecture of the wing itself […]”

One of the most cited example from the field of embodied artificial intelligence is the Passive Dynamic Walker by McGeer (1990). In this example, a two-legged walking machine preforms a naturally appealing walking behaviour, as a result of a well-chosen morphology and environment, without any need of control. There is simply no computation available and the walking behaviour is the result of the gravity, the slope of the ground and the specifics of the mechanical construction (weight and length of the body parts, deviation of the joints, etc.). If any parameter of the mechanics (morphology) or the slope (environment) is changed, the walking behaviour will not persist. In this context, we understand the exploitation of the body’s and environment’s physical properties as the embodiments effect on a behaviour.

Theoretical work on describing morphological computation in the context of embodied artificial intelligence has been conducted by (Hauser et al., 2011; Füchslin et al., 2012). In this publication, we study an information-theoretic approach to quantifying morphological computation which is based on an information decomposition of the sensorimotor loop. This work is based on two of our previous publications in which we have investigated different quantifications of morphological computation (Zahedi and Ay, 2013)

and derived a general decomposition of a mutual information of three random variables into unique, shared, and synergistic information

(Bertschinger et al., 2014). In our previous work (Zahedi and Ay, 2013), we derived two concepts which both match the general intuition about morphological computation, but showed different results. In this publication, we will apply the information decomposition of Bertschinger et al. (2014) to the setting of Zahedi and Ay (2013) with the goal to unify the two previously derived concepts.

The paper is organised in the following way. The next section discusses the sensorimotor loop and its representation as a causal graph. The third section describes the bivariate information decomposition from Bertschinger et al. (2014). Based on the information decomposition, the fourth section introduces the unique information as a measure for morphological computation in the sensorimotor loop. The fifth section presents numerical results, which are then discussed in the final section. An appendix explains how we computed our measure of morphological computation.

2 Sensorimotor Loop

Our information theoretic decomposition of the mutual information requires a formal representation of the sensorimotor loop, which we will introduce in this section. In our understanding, a cognitive system consists of a brain or controller, which sends signals to the system’s actuators, thereby affecting the system’s environment. We prefer the notion of the system’s Umwelt (von Uexkuell, 1934; Clark, 1996; Zahedi et al., 2010), which is the part of the system’s environment that can be affected by the system, and which itself affects the system. The state of the actuators and the Umwelt are not directly accessible to the cognitive system, but the loop is closed as information about the Umwelt and the body is provided to the controller through the sensors. In addition to this general concept of the sensorimotor loop, which is widely used in the embodied artificial intelligence community (see e.g. Pfeifer et al., 2007a) we introduce the notion of world and by that we mean the system’s morphology and the system’s Umwelt

. We can now distinguish between the intrinsic and extrinsic perspective in this context. The world is everything that is extrinsic from the perspective of the cognitive system, whereas the controller, sensor and actuator signals are intrinsic to the system. This is analogous to the agent-environment distinction in the context of reinforcement learning

(Sutton and Barto, 1998), in which the environment is understood as everything that cannot be controlled arbitrarily by the agent.

The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic is also captured in the representation of the sensorimotor loop as a causal or Bayesian graph (see Fig. 1). For simplicity, we only discuss the sensorimotor loop for reactive systems. This is plausible, because behaviours which exploit the embodiment are usually better described as reactive and not as deliberative. The most prominent examples are locomotion behaviours, e.g. human walking, swimming, flying, etc., which are all well-modelled as reactive behaviours.

The random variables , , and refer to sensor, actuator, and world state, and the directed edges reflect causal dependencies between the random variables (see Klyubin et al., 2004; Ay and Polani, 2008; Zahedi et al., 2010). Everything that is extrinsic is captured in the variable , whereas and are intrinsic to the agent. The random variables and are not to be mistaken with the sensors and actuators. The variable is the output of the sensors, which is available to the controller or brain, the action is the input that the actuators take. Consider an artificial robotic system as an example. Then the sensor state could be the pixel matrix delivered by some camera sensor and the action could be a numerical value that is taken by some motor controller to be converted in currents to drive a motor.

Throughout this work, we use capital letter (, , …) to denote random variables, non-capital letter (, , …) to denote a specific value that a random variable can take, and calligraphic letters (, , …) to denote the alphabet for the random variables. This means that is the specific value that the random variable can take a time , and it is from the set . Greek letters refer to generative kernels, i.e. kernels which describe an actual underlying mechanism or a causal relation between two random variables.

We abbreviate the random variables for better comprehension in the remainder of this work, as the information decomposition (see next sections) considers random variables of consecutive time indices. Therefore, we use the following notation. Random variables without any time index refer to time and hyphened variables to time . The two variables refer to and .

Figure 1: A formal model of the sensorimotor loop.

Formally, the sensorimotor loop is given by the probability distribution

and the kernels , , and . To analyse the quality of our derived quantification, it is best to evaluate them in a fully controllable setting. For this purpose, we chose the same parameterisable binary model of the sensorimotor loop that was used in our previous publication (Zahedi and Ay, 2013). It allows to control the causal dependencies of , , and individually, and thereby, enables an evaluation of the information decomposition in the sensorimotor loop and compare it with our previous results. The model is shown in Figure 1 and given by the following set of equations:


where and . As in (Zahedi and Ay, 2013), the following two assumptions are made without loss of generality. First, it is assumed that all world states occur with equal probability, i.e. . Second, we assume a deterministic sensor, i.e. , which means that the sensor is a copy of the world state. The first assumption does not violate the generality, because it only assures that the world state itself does not already encode some structure, which is propagated through the sensorimotor loop. The second assumption does not violate the generality of the model, because in a reactive system as in Figure 1, the sensor state and can be reduced to a common state, with a new generative kernel . Hence, keeping one of the two kernels deterministic and varying the other in the experiments below, does not reduce the validity of this model. This leaves four open parameters , and , against which the morphological computation measure is validated.

3 Information Decomposition

Next, we introduce the information decomposition that underlies our measure of morphological computation. We first explain this information decomposition in a general information theoretic setting and later explain how we use it in the sensorimotor loop.

Consider three random variables . Suppose that a system wants to predict the value of the random variable , but it can only access the information in  or . How is the information that and  carry about  distributed over  and ? In general, there may be redundant or shared information (information contained both and ), but there may also be unique information (information contained in only one of  or ). Finally, there is also the possibility of synergystic or complementary information, i.e. information that is only available when and  are taken together. The classical example for synergy is the XOR function: If and are binary random variables and if , then neither nor contain any information about  (in fact, is independent of  and is independent of ), but when and  are taken together, they completely determine  (in particular, is not independent from the pair ).

The total information that contains about  can be quantified by the mutual information . However, there is no canonical way to separate these different kinds of informations. Mathematically, one would like to have four functions (“shared information”), (“unique information of ”), (“unique information of ”), (“complementary information”) that satisfy


From the interpretation it is also natural to require


A set of three functions , , and that satisfy (5) and (6) is called a bivariate information decomposition by Bertschinger et al. (2014)

. It follows from the defining equations and the chain rule of mutual information that an information decomposition always satisfies


Equations (5) and (6) do not specify the functions , , and . Several different candidates have been proposed so far, for example by Williams and Beer (2010) and Harder et al. (2013). We will use the decomposition of Bertschinger et al. (2014) that is defined as follows:


be the set of all possible joint distributions of

, , and . Fix an element (the “true” joint distribution of , , and ). Define

as the set of all joint distributions which have the same marginal distributions on the pairs and . Then

where denotes the co-information. Here, a subscript in an information quantity means that the quantity is computed with respect to  as the joint distribution.

One idea behind these functions is the following: Suppose that the joint distribution of , , and is not known, but that just the marginal distributions of the pairs and  are known. This information is sufficient to characterize the set , but we do not know which element of  is the true joint distribution. One can argue that the and should be constant on ; that is, shared information and unique information should depend only on the interaction of  and  and the interaction on and , but not on the way in which the three variables interact.

The second property that characterizes the information decomposition is that the set contains a distribution  such that . In other words, when only the marginal distributions of the pairs and  are known, then we cannot know whether there is synergy or not. See (Bertschinger et al., 2014) for a more detailed justification and a proof how these properties, determine the functions , , and .

In Bertschinger et al. (2014), the formulas for , , and  are derived from considerations about decision problems in which the objective is to predict the outcome of . Here, we want to apply the information decomposition in another setting: We will set , , and . In our setting, and  not only have information about , but they actually control . However, the situation is similar: In the sensorimotor loop, we also expect to find aspects of redundant, unique, and complementary influence of  and  on . Formally, since everything is defined probabilistically, we can still use the same functions , , and . We believe that the arguments behind the definition of , and  remain valid in the setting of the sensorimotor loop where we need it. First, it is still plausible that unique and redundant contributions should only depend on the marginal distributions of the pairs and . Second, in order to decide whether and act synergistically, it does not suffice to know only these marginal distributions. Therefore, we believe that the functions , , and have a meaningful interpretation. In particular, we hope to be able to use the information decomposition in order to measure morphological computation. This view is supported by our simulations below, which indicate that the functions , and do indeed lead to a reasonable decomposition of and that the unique information is a reasonable measure of morphological computation, at least in our simple model of the sensorimotor loop.

The parameters of our model of the sensorimotor loop (Eqs (1) to (4)) can also be interpreted in terms of an information decomposition. Intuitively, corresponds to the unique influence of on , corresponds to the unique influence of on , and corresponds to the complementary influence. However, the role of the additional parameters  is not so clear, and it is not so easy to find a correspondence of redundant information. The information decomposition has the advantage, that its definition does not depend on a parametrization. Observe that if the “synergistic parameter” vanishes, then it does not necessarily follow that  (see Fig. 2). However, we do expect the complementary information to be small in this case.

4 Morphological computation

Morphological computation was described as the contribution of the embodiment to a behaviour. In our previous work, we derived two concepts to quantify morphological computation, which are both based on the world dynamics kernel .

The first concept assumes that the current action has no influence on the next world state , in which case the kernel reduces to

. If this is the case, we would say that the systems shows maximal morphological computation, as the behaviour is completely determined by the world. To measure the amount of morphological computation present in a recorded behaviour, we calculated how much the data differed from the assumption by calculating the weighted Kullback-Leibler divergence

, which is the conditional mutual information . Because this quantity is zero if we have maximal morphological computation, we inverted and normalised in the following way: .

The second concept started with the complementary assumption that the current world state had no influence on the next world state , i.e., that the world dynamics kernel is given by . Morphological computation was then quantified as the error from the assumption, given by the weighted Kullback-Leibler divergence , which equals the conditional mutual information .

Both concepts were analysed and quantifications were derived, which didn’t require knowledge about the world, but could be calculated from intrinsically available information only. At that time, we could not determine which of the two concepts would capture morphological computation best, although both concepts and their intrinsic adaptations lead to different results in a specific configuration ().

Our intention in this publication is to answer this question. For this purpose, we follow a different approach to quantify morphological computation, by starting with the mutual information of and decompose it into the shared, unique and synergistic information, as described in the previous section. Rewriting the Equation (5), by replacing by , we obtain the following information decomposition:


As show in Equation (7), our previous concept two, the conditional mutual information is given by the sum of the unique information and the synergistic information :


The examples we have discussed in the introduction (insect wing and Passive Dynamic Walker) suggest to use the unique information to quantify morphological computation, because it captures the information that the current and next world state share uniquely. The next section presents numerical simulations to investigate how the conditional mutual information and the unique information compare with respect to quantifying morphological computation.

5 Experiments

The experiments in this section are conducted on the parameterised model of the sensorimotor loop that was introduced in the second section (see Fig. 1 and Eq. (1) to Eq. (4)). As stated earlier, we set , which means that the world state is drawn with equal probability (), and such that the sensor state is a copy of the world state . This leaves four parameters for variation, namely the three world dynamics kernel parameters and the policy parameter . We decided to plot the information theoretic quantities only for (see Fig. 2 and Fig. 3), i.e., for the case, in which the action is chosen independently of the current sensor value and with equal probability. This allows us to investigate the effect of the action on the next world state , without any influence of on . We also know from previous experiments (see Zahedi and Ay, 2013), that the conditional mutual information drops to zero for increasing . As the conditional mutual information is the sum of the unique and synergistic information, we know that both quantities will also decrease with increasing . If is deterministically dependent on , it also follows that the unique information is zero, because and are interchangeable. The only quantity that will be larger than zero is the shared information, which, by definition, is not of interest in the context of this work.

We decided to plot the information decomposition for varying (parameter of unique influence of on ) and (parameter of unique influence of on ) for two different values of (parameter of synergistic influence of on , see Eq. (1)). Figure 2 shows the results for , while Figure 3 shows the results for . We will first discuss the results for , as they are best comparable with our previous results from (Zahedi and Ay, 2013).

Figure 2: Information decomposition for

Vanishing synergistic parameter ():

Figure 2A shows that synergistic information is small and only present if (diagonal of the image). This is in agreement with our intuition that is the synergistic parameter. The unique information of the action and the next world state , denoted by , is shown in Figure 2B. The plot reveals that the unique information of the current action and the next world state is only present, whenever , and it is large, whenever is significantly larger than . Figure 2C shows analogous results for the unique information . In this case, the unique information is negligible, whenever and grows whenever is significantly larger then . These two plots show that the definition of the unique information, as proposed by Bertschinger et al. (2014), is able to extract the unique influence in a setting in which two random variables actually control a third random variable. Fig. 2D shows the conditional mutual information , which was the second concept of quantifying morphological computation in our previous work (Zahedi and Ay, 2013). As stated earlier, the conditional mutual information is given by the sum of the unique and synergistic information (Eq. (9)). Hence, there is almost no difference between Figure 2B and Figure 2D, except on the diagonal, where the unique information drops faster to zero.

Positive synergistic parameter ():

Figure 3: Information decomposition for

To study the difference between the unique information and the conditional mutual information , and hence, compare the new quantification with our former concept, we conducted the same experiments with a value of  (see Figures 3 and 4). Figures 3A-C demonstrate how the information decomposition can distinguish between the synergistic information and the unique informations, which is exactly what we need to quantify morphological computation. The unique information captures only the information that the current world state and the next world state share, and therefore, captures the common understanding of morphological computation in the context of embodied artificial intelligence. In the introduction, we presented two examples of morphological computation, which described it as the contribution of the body and environment to a behaviour, that cannot be assigned to any neural system or robot controller. The

Figure 4: Difference between and for .

unique information Figure 3B captures this notion of morphological computation best, because it vanishes if the synergistic information (see Fig. 3A) or the unique information (see Fig. 3C) increases. Given Eq. (9), it is clear that the conditional mutual information is positive (see Fig. 3D) whenever the unique information or the synergistic information is positive. This is problematic for the following reason. Figure 3D show a positive conditional mutual information also for values of , which is counter-intuitive. Furthermore, as Figure 4 shows (note that the axes are rotated for better visibility), the conditional mutual information is indifferent for a large range of . Additionally, the conditional mutual information increases for vanishing and , which again is counter-intuitive, whereas the unique information (see right-hand side of Fig. 4) nicely reflects our intuition. Therefore, we conclude that the unique information is best suited to quantify morphological computation in the context of embodied artificial intelligence.

6 Discussion

This work proposes a quantification of morphological computation based on an information decomposition in the sensorimotor loop. In the introduction, morphological computation was described as the contribution of an agent’s body and agent’s Umwelt to its behaviour. Important to note is that both mentioned examples highlighted the contribution of the embodiment that resulted solely from interactions of the body and environment and that cannot be attributed to any type of control by the agent. This is why we propose to use a decomposition of the mutual information into shared, unique and synergistic information. This allows us to separate contributions of the embodiment from contributions of the controller (via its actions ) and contributions of both, controller and embodiment.

We showed that the information decomposition is related to our previous work in the following way. The sum of the unique information and the synergistic information is equivalent the conditional mutual information , which is one of the two earlier concepts for morphological computation. This relation shows the difference of this work compared to our former results. We are now able to quantify exactly how much of the next world state is determined by the current world state , thereby excluding any influence of the action . Therefore, we proposed as a quantification of morphological computation.

In two numerical simulations, we evaluated the decomposition in a parametrised, binary model of the sensorimotor loop. The world dynamics kernel was parametrised with three parameters, , , and , which roughly relate to the unique information , the unique information , and the synergistic information . For a fixed value of , the two parameters and were varied to evaluate the information decomposition in the sensorimotor loop. It was shown that for a vanishing synergistic parameter , synergistic information was present only for . This explains why there is only a marginal difference between and in this setting. For a positive synergistic parameter , we saw that the synergistic information was positive for a much larger domain, which led to a significant difference between and . In particular, the condition mutual information was positive for a larger range of parameter values and . There is a domain , for which the conditional mutual information is positive and indifferent. One would expect to see a higher morphological computation mostly when , despite the fact that synergistic information is present. This shows that the is better suited to quantify morphological computation.

In Zahedi and Ay (2013) it was proposed that a measure of morphological computation could be used as a guiding principle in an open-ended self-organised learning setting. For this to work, this measure should only depend on information that is intrinsically available to the system. Clearly, this is not the case for . Therefore, future work will include derivations of the information decomposition, which only include intrinsically available information. It would also be interesting to investigate how much a formalisation of the information decomposition can benefit from a consideration of the causal information flow. The starting point for our decomposition was the mutual information , which is a correlational measure and not a measure of causal dependence, as e.g. proposed by Pearl (2000). In currently ongoing work, we are applying the quantification to motion capturing data of real robots.

7 Acknowledgements

This work was partly funded by Priority Program Autonomous Learning (DFG-SPP 1527) of the German Research Foundation (DFG).


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Appendix A Appendix: Computing , , and .

In this appendix we shortly explain how we computed the functions and . The appendix of Bertschinger et al. (2014) explains how to parametrize the set  and how to solve the optimization problems in the definitions of , , and . In our case, where all variables are binary, consists of all probability distributions with

-1 -1 -1
-1 -1 +1
-1 +1 -1
-1 +1 +1
+1 -1 -1
+1 -1 +1
+1 +1 -1
+1 +1 +1

The range of the two parameters is restricted in such a way that has no negative entries. Since every entry involves only one of the two parameters, is a rectangle, bounded by the inequalities

To approximately solve the optimization problem we computed the values on a grid and took the optimal value. This simple procedure yields an approximation that is good enough for our purposes.