School of Computer Science

The Cognition and Affect Project
(Additional details)

Exploring architectures for intelligent agents:
(whether natural or artificial.)

We are investigating principles for designing or explaining architectures for "whole" intelligent agents, combining many kinds of functionality, whether natural or artificial.

Multiple approaches to mind

We try to approach an understanding of human-like minds gradually, from several directions.

Much of the work is theoretical: informed by cross-disciplinary themes from philosophy, AI, psychology, ethology, neuroscience and biology. For example


It is not easy to give a simple high level definition of the work in the Birmingham Cognition and Affect project, but it does include at least the following:

Science as well as engineering

Unlike many researchers on agent architectures, whose aim is primarily to solve some engineering problem, our motivation is mainly to understand the functioning of human minds in the context of a broader study of possible designs for behaving systems, natural and artificial, including processes of learning, development and evolution.

We believe that understanding the broader class of designs for minds is essential for understanding the special features of human minds. To understand something you need to understand not only what it is, but also in which respects it might have been different, and what differences those differences would have made.

A related activity: the UK Computing Research Committee's 'Grand Challenges' discussion includes a draft proposal for a grand challenge on 'Architecture of Brain and Mind'

Practical activities

Some of the work is practical: building actual examples of agents or groups of agents with interesting architectures, both in order to help us understand the problems and in order to demonstrate some design ideas. Eventually some of the implemented examples may be of practical as well as theoretical use.

To help with this practical work we have designed and implemented a sophisticated, and unusually flexible toolkit for implementing agents composed of multiple interacting mechanisms performing different tasks concurrently, e.g. perception, reasoning, learning, modifying motives, producing emotions, making plans, executing plans, etc. This toolkit is freely available on the Web with full source code, here:

Initially our simulated agents inhabit only simple simulated worlds, though our work is largely inspired by much of what is known about real animals (especially humans) in real physical and social environments.

We shall gradually make the simulations more and more complex as our understanding and our resources grow, and as our theories develop so as to explain an increasingly wide range of phenomena in increasingly rich detail.

We also hope to test the ideas in real robots, in particular in the EU-funded CoSy project

Some mpeg movies showing simple demos are available here.

Potential applications

Although our primary goals are to advance our scientific and philosophical understanding of the nature of mind whether in biological systems or in robots, and how various kinds of minds can be implemented, this research also has many potential applications, in the long term, including the design of intelligent software of many kinds (e.g. factory controllers, personal assistants, teaching systems, hazard warning systems, aids to managing disasters, etc.) design of more "believable" agents in computer games and entertainments, and perhaps robots to help the agent and infirm to lead relatively independent lives.

The work may also achieve the practical goal of helping us understand better how people work, how they learn, how they go wrong, etc. which could have profound implications for education and therapy, and generally improving the quality of life.

In particular our survey of various kinds of architectures and how they might have evolved should shed light on problems of controlling attention in resource-limited agents (natural or artificial), and explain how various kinds of emotional states are possible. We have shown how at least three different sorts of emotions (primary emotions, secondary emotions and tertiary emotions) can arise in agents with the sorts of layered architectures we have been studying. Further, more detailed, architecture-based classifications of affective states will follow from an analysis of the states and processes supported by our hypothesised architectures.

These emotional capabilities are shared to varying degrees with other animals, depending on their information processing architectures.

More detailed project overview

Further details can be found in An older project overview.

Some previous contributors and collaborators.

There is a growing collection of slide presentations in this directory:

Gerd Ruebenstrunk has written a survey entitled Emotional Computers available in German and English which includes an overview of much of our work (up to 1988).

Related work by Marvin Minsky and Push Singh

Marvin Minsky's draft book The Emotion Machine, and other papers available at his web site develops many ideas closely related to ours, from which we have learnt much.

Push Singh's PhD thesis is also very closely related. It is available in two formats:

Philosophical connections

Our work has many connections with work in philosophy of mind and other areas of philosophy, going back thousands of years.

One aspect of the philosophical work is attempting to understand the similarities and differences between various kinds of machines:

  1. machines which transform and use force and energy,
  2. machines which reorganise matter (at microscopic or macroscopic scales)
  3. machines which process information, i.e. acquire, transform, store, interpret, search for, or transmit information about themselves or other things, including non-existent things!
This includes understanding the relations between machines of various sorts, i.e. explaining how a particular sort of information processing machine may "inhabit" various types of physical machines of the first two types. This leads to new ideas about the nature of consciousness.

Collaboration is always welcome, as is critical comment.


Work in Birmingham on the EC-Funded project CoSy: Cognitive Systems for Cognitive Assistants started in September 2004. See

The Leverhulme-funded project on Evolvable virtual information processing architectures for human-like minds, lasted from October 1999 to June 2003. See this web site:

Project papers, PhD theses, seminar slides, etc. can be found in

The Sim_agent toolkit, is available free of charge with full system sources in the Free Poplog directory.

For more information about the project contact Aaron Sloman (address below).

This file is maintained by Aaron Sloman, and designed to be lynx-friendly, and viewable with any browser.
Last updated: 11 May 2009