The role of feedback in morphological computation with compliant bodies
The generation of robust periodic movements of complex nonlinear robotic systems is inherently difficult, especially, if parts of the robots are compliant. It has previously been proposed that complex nonlinear features of a robot, similarly as in biological organisms, might possibly facilitate its control. This bold hypothesis, commonly referred to as morphological computation, has recently received some theoretical support by Hauser et al. (Biol Cybern 105:355-370, doi:10.1007/s00422-012-0471-0, 2012). We show in this article that this theoretical support can be extended to cover not only the case of fading memory responses to external signals, but also the essential case of autonomous generation of adaptive periodic patterns, as, e.g., needed for locomotion. The theory predicts that feedback into the morphological computing system is necessary and sufficient for such tasks, for which a fading memory is insufficient. We demonstrate the viability of this theoretical analysis through computer simulations of complex nonlinear mass-spring systems that are trained to generate a large diversity of periodic movements by adapting the weights of a simple linear feedback device. Hence, the results of this article substantially enlarge the theoretically tractable application domain of morphological computation in robotics, and also provide new paradigms for understanding control principles of biological organisms.