Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Machina speculatrix

William Grey Walter (1950a, 1950b, 1951, 1963) invented the first autonomous robots in 1948, which he called “Machina speculatrix, inevitable name of the species for the discerning, though ‘tortoise’ to the profane.”  The latter name arose because each machine was covered by a tortoise-like shell. The robots used two motors -- one for a front-wheel drive, the other for steering -- to move around. The speed of these motors were affected by two different sensors. In low light, the robots moved forward and steered slowly. In medium light, the steering motor stopped so that the robot moved directly towards a light source. In bright light, the robot was dazzled, with the steering motor speeding up. A similar dazzled state (accompanied by a brief period of complete insensitivity to light) was entered when the robot shell was bumped by an obstacle.

These robots were of interest because they generated very complex behaviors as a function of the interaction between their simple reflexes and a complex world. They are of renewed interest today because they illustrate many of the principles that guide embodied cognitive science (e.g., Dawson, Dupuis & Wilson, 2010).


  1. 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.
  2. Grey Walter, W. (1950a). An imitation of life. Scientific American, 182(5), 42-45.
  3. Grey Walter, W. (1950b). An electro-mechanical animal. Dialectica, 4(3), 206-213.
  4. Grey Walter, W. (1951). A machine that learns. Scientific American, 184(8), 60-63.
  5. Grey Walter, W. (1963). The Living Brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

(Added November, 2009)