Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Forward Engineering

Forward engineering is the opposite of reverse engineering.  In forward engineering, one takes a set of primitives of interest, builds them into a working system, and then observes what the system can and cannot do.  “Only about 1 in 20 [students] ‘gets it’ -- that is, the idea of thinking about psychological problems by inventing mechanisms for them and then trying to see what they can and cannot do” (Minsky, 1995, personal communication).

Forward engineering is the foundation of synthetic psychology (Braitenberg, 1984; Dawson, 2004; Pfeifer & Scheier, 1999).  Braitenberg has argued that forward engineering is likely to produce simpler theories than reverse engineering because the latter tends to attribute behavioural complexities to the internal mechanisms of the agent.  Braitenberg calls this the law of uphill analysis and downhill synthesis.  There is a long history of forward engineering showing that simple agents can produce surprisingly complicated behaviours when they are embedded in an interesting environment (Dawson, Dupuis & Wilson, 2010).


  1. Braitenberg, V. (1984). Vehicles: Explorations In Synthetic Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Dawson, M. R. W. (2004). Minds And Machines : Connectionism And Psychological Modeling. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  3. Dawson, M.R.W.,  Dupuis, B., & Wilson, M. (2010). From Bricks to Brains: The Embodied Cognitive Science of LEGO Robots.  Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, forthcoming.
  4. Pfeifer, R., & Scheier, C. (1999). Understanding Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(Added January 2010)