Artificial Agents and Autonomy

Spring 2012


PHIL192-08/COMP150-01 "Artificial Agents and Autonomy" (3 cr)

The goal of the course is to apply computational simulation-based approaches to asking and answering long-standing philosophical questions about agency, autonomy, mental states, emergence, abstraction and many others. Students will program simple agents to perform simple tasks in multi-agent environments and then analyze agent performance as well as group effects. Questions that could be addressed include “how can cellular agents by working together implement higher-level coherence and competence?” or “how can personal-level behavior and behavioral competences arise out of interactions of sub-personal level agents (such as neurons) with their behaviors?” The course will utilize various agent-based techniques (including evolutionary concepts) for investigating and exploring design and design trade-offs, and it will in all phases attempt to link concepts used in the design of agent architectures (such as control concepts, notions of percepts, knowledge items, actions, etc.) and link them to philosophical concepts (e.g., such as intention,belief, agency, etc.).

After some simple initial experiments using Braitenberg-style simulations to get acquainted with the simulation environment and how simple agents can be programmed in it, students will work in groups on projects and present weekly updates on their findings. Students will also be required to make regular entries of their thinking in a log or diary: the questions they have asked themselves, the false starts, the half-backed ideas, the insights, the discoveries. This will be available to all on the course website.

In parallel, the lectures and the readings will provide background on the relevant philosophical concepts and current discourse. This information will then be used by students as part of their regular reports where they are asked to link analyses of their particular experiments to more general philosophical concepts and questions.

Required Course Text:

Valentino Braitenberg (1986). Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. MIT Press. ISBN-10: 0-262-52112-1 ISBN-13: 978-0-262-52112-3, 162 pages

Daniel Dennett book review of "Vehicles" and his papers on "Real Patterns" and "True Believers".

Additional reading materials and lecture note (e.g., week 1) will be made available on the course page in Trunk.

Instructors: Daniel Dennett and Matthias Scheutz

Office: 115 Miner Hall
Office Hours: by appointment only
Phone: (617) 627.3297 or internal 7-3297

Office: 107B Halligan Hall
Office Hours: by appointment only
Phone: (617) 627-0453 or internal 7-0453

Teaching Assistant: TBD

Max Smiley at (for all questions regarding the simulation)
Amber Ross at (for all questions regarding the diary)

Computer Usage:

Assignments in this course will use the Java-based Simworld environment (and possibly others) which will be provided.  Familiarity with Java/Java Script is required.


In line with the course goals, the semester grade will reflect both students' individual contributions (through individual assignments and participation) as well as the their contribution as a group (through class presentations and diary posts).  Each student is expected to post a short paragraph with thoughts on the class material once a week (no more than 250 words) on Trunk (before Sunday 9pm).  For the group parts, students will form groups of four (where each group should have at least one graduate student).  The groups are intended for students to work together on novel simulations to explore various concepts (based on the class readings, the class presentations, class discussion, or their own explorations).  The biweekly diary posts are intended to summarize the discussions, explorations, and analyses of each group (details on how to submit them will be provided later).

    20% - individual assignments
    30% - individual participation (weekly posts on Trunk)
    20% - group class presentation (5 min group presentation every other week in class)
    30% - group diary (post every other week)
The following grade breakdown will be used:
 92 - 100  A 
 89 - 91  A-
 86 - 88   B+
 82 - 85  B
 79 - 81  B-
 76 - 78  C+
 72 - 75  C
 69 - 71  C-
 62 - 68  D
   0 - 61  F

Late Policy

Late assignments are in general not accepted, hence will not earn any credit (except in extraordinary formally documented circumstances).

Class Attendance, Participation, and Policy on Electronic Devices

Although no rigorous attendance policy will be implemented for this course, students are expected to attend all classes (students with excessive absences will be very unlikely to pass the course).  Everybody is encouraged to participate actively and contribute to the course (e.g., by asking questions and sharing information in the online web-based forum). 

This course follows the Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Engineering Guidelines Pertaining to Religious Observances. You are not required to prove attendance at religious services or events to obtain an accommodation for religous observance, but you are requested to provide indication of such any accommodation requests early in the semester.

Electronic devices can be massively disturbing during class time (from noises due to typing, to the distractions that result from being connected to the Internet) and will lead to reduced attention/participation of the user (there are lots of studies confirming that!), and likely the people around the user.  Instead of coping with the temptations of texting, emailing, web browsing, and other non-class-related activities enabled by electronic devices during class time, this course implements a strict "no electronic devices during lectures" policy:  no cell phones, smart phones, PDAs, tablets, laptops, or other similar electronic devices are allowed during class time.


Per Tufts policy, incompletes will be granted under only the most exceptional of circumstances (out of your control) and only in cases where most of the course work has already been completed. Examples of exceptional circumstances include a death in the family or major illness that keeps you out of the classroom for a significant period of time. Note that getting behind in the class due to other obligations outside the classroom (other classes, job) doesn't warrant granting an incomplete.

Academic Honesty:

This course is conducted in accordance with the Academic Integrity standards as described in the School of Arts and Sciences / School of Engineering Academic Integrity booklet.  Specifically, it is considered cheating if you obtain any kind of information about answers and solutions to any of the assignments in this course from any non-intended source (including your peers) or conversely transfer such information to others. When in doubt, ask the instructor. Nobody begins the semester with the intention of cheating. Students who cheat do so because they fall behind gradually, and then panic at the last minute. Some students get into this situation because they are afraid of an unpleasant conversation with an instructor if they admit to not understanding something. I would much rather deal with your misunderstanding early than deal with its consequences later. Please, feel free to ask for help as soon as you need it.  And remember: plagiarism violates academic honesty and Tufts faculty are required by Tufts policies to report any form of plagiarism.

Statement for Students with Disabilities:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact Disability Services.

This page is maintained by Matthias Scheutz.
Last revised on January 23, 2012.