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J Anim Sci. 1998 Oct;76(10):2596-604.

Animats: computer-simulated animals in behavioral research.

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  • 1Department of Herd Medicine and Theriogenology, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada.


The term animat refers to a class of simulated animals. This article is intended as a nontechnical introduction to animat research. Animats can be robots interacting with the real world or computer simulations. In this article, the use of computer-generated animats is emphasized. The scientific use of animats has been pioneered by artificial intelligence and artificial life researchers. Behavior-based artificial intelligence uses animats capable of autonomous and adaptive activity as conceptual tools in the design of usefully intelligent systems. Artificial life proponents view some human artifacts, including informational structures that show adaptive behavior and self-replication, as animats may do, as analogous to biological organisms. Animat simulations may be used for rapid and inexpensive evaluation of new livestock environments or management techniques. The animat approach is a powerful heuristic for understanding the mechanisms that underlie behavior. The simple rules and capabilities of animat models generate emergent and sometimes unpredictable behavior. Adaptive variability in animat behavior may be exploited using artificial neural networks. These have computational properties similar to natural neurons and are capable of learning. Artificial neural networks can control behavior at all levels of an animat's functional organization. Improving the performance of animats often requires genetic programming. Genetic algorithms are computer programs that are capable of self-replication, simulating biological reproduction. Animats may thus evolve over generations. Selective forces may be provided by a human overseer or be part of the simulated environment. Animat techniques allow researchers to culture behavior outside the organism that usually produces it. This approach could contribute new insights in theoretical ethology on questions including the origins of social behavior and cooperation, adaptation, and the emergent nature of complex behavior. Animat studies applied to domestic animals have been few so far, and have involved simulations of space use by swine. I suggest other applications, including modeling animal movement during human handling and the effects of environmental enrichment on the satisfaction of behavioral needs. Appropriate use of animat models in a research program could result in savings of time and numbers of animals required. This approach may therefore come to be viewed as both ethically and economically advantageous.

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