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Natural and artificial intelligence

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Don’t expect a conventional computing module with this one! It deals with one of humanity’s oldest dreams: creating machines with powers and mental abilities similar to our own. You’ll examine work at the frontiers of research in computing, where ideas from biology are inspiring computer scientists to find new solutions to old problems – particularly in the quest to build truly intelligent computer systems. The module begins with a survey of traditional and modern approaches to artificial intelligence, bringing out the concepts that underlie them, and then explores the theory and applications of two classes of system inspired by biology: neural networks and evolutionary computation.

Modules at Level 3 assume that you are suitably prepared for study at this level. If you want to take a single module to satisfy your career development needs or pursue particular interests, you don’t need to start at Level 1 but you do need to have adequately prepared yourself for OU study in some other way. Check with our Student Registration & Enquiry Service to make sure that you are sufficiently prepared.

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This course is expected to start for the last time in February 2014.

What you will study

With the advent of the digital computer in the twentieth century, genuine man-made intelligence seemed possible for the first time, and artificial intelligence (AI) emerged as a serious research discipline. In M366 you’ll be introduced to both conventional and novel ideas in AI, by contrasting traditional approaches with ideas that are now being pursued in the latest research– taking in aspects of biology and philosophy as well as computing and technology. The module has three broad objectives, spread over six blocks.

First, it introduces and contrasts traditional and modern (sometimes called ‘nouvelle’) approaches to AI. Traditional AI research attempts to reproduce in computers some of the characteristics that we think of as central to human intelligence: logical reasoning, language, problem solving and our ability to plan and predict. The conventional strategy is to start by examining introspectively the workings of our own minds, and then try to replicate these on a computer. The computational techniques that come out of this approach are discussed in detail, with examples, in Blocks 1 and 2. In contrast, nouvelle AI research looks beyond the human sphere, to evidence of intelligence in non-human animals. These include self-organised collective behaviour; the ability to recognise objects and respond appropriately; communication; navigation; construction skills; and learning. Block 3 uses examples from nature and from computer simulation to develop the four main principles out of which such purposeful, systematic behaviours can arise: interaction, emergence, adaptation and selection.

Second, using the four principles as a base, M366 discusses in detail two modern techniques in AI and computerised problem solving: artificial neural networks (ANNs) and evolutionary computation (EC). The biological inspiration of ANNs in animal nervous systems is described in outline in Block 4, along with analysis and examples of successful ANN systems and models. EC is introduced in its natural context of genetic adaptation and Darwinian evolution in Block 5. Techniques such as genetic algorithms and genetic programming – in which evolutionary processes are simulated to solve problems of optimisation, control and design – are explained and analysed in detail.

Finally, in Block 6, students are invited to reflect on the contrasting traditional and modern approaches, and to form their own opinions on the significance and the future of AI.

The formal presentation of the above material will be backed up by experimental work using a number of software tools.

The module contains images of insects, including moving swarms in the video material on the DVD.


This is a Level 3 module. Level 3 modules build on study skills acquired from previous modules at Levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject. These related modules do not need to be drawn from other maths and computing modules; but to study M366 you should be a competent user of computer technology and have some programming skills. 

Although a background in mathematics is not required, you should feel comfortable with a certain amount of mathematical symbolism, including elementary algebraic and vector notation. In a few exercises, you are asked to work through simple problems. We have tried to keep the mathematical content to a minimum and the notation used is explained in a separate glossary.

The following non-technical texts offer a useful insight into the themes of the module, although the M366 material is a great deal more detailed and technical.

  • Forbes, N. (2004) Imitation of Life: How Biology is Inspiring Computing, Cambridge MA, MIT Press (Paperback: ISBN 0262562154; Hardback: ISBN 0262062410).
  • Sipper, M. (2002) Machine Nature: The Coming of Bio-Inspired Computing, Cambridge MA, MIT Press (ISBN 0071387048).

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

This module requires students to undertake a range of experimental activities including construction of computer simulations using third-party software tools; observation, recording and analysis of results; web research; and other practical activities, including some assignment questions. If you are unable to perform any of these activities without assistance, possibly due to a disability, it may still be possible for you to complete and pass the module. Written transcripts are available for the audio-visual material. The study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and software materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. 

We will provide descriptions of visual module elements, such as video materials and mathematical notation, where possible. Nevertheless it is possible you might find it difficult to complete some activities.  Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Visit our Services for disabled students website for more information, including:

  • help to determine your study requirements and how to request the support that you need  
  • Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)
  • using a computer for OU study
  • equipment and other support services that we offer
  • examination arrangements
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

What's included

Module books and other printed materials, DVD containing the module software and audio and video material, website, and an online forum.

You will need

You require internet access at least once a week during the module to download module resources and assignments, submit assignments and keep up to date with module news.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this course. It includes online activities – you can access using a web browser – and some course software provided on disk.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer running Windows since 2007 you should have no problems completing the computer-based activities.
  • A netbook, tablet or other mobile computing device is not suitable for this course – check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you have an Apple Mac or Linux computer – please note that you can only use it for this course by running Windows on it using Boot Camp or a similar dual-boot system.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information including the details of the support we provide.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer group tutorials or day-schools that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where your tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking the module. 

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above - please note that this may be subject to change.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in February 2014 when it will be available for the last time.

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Student Reviews

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Distance learning

The Open University is the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you’re at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you’ll be supported throughout your studies – your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information read Distance learning explained.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.
Course facts
About this course:
Course code M366
Credits 30
OU Level 3
SCQF level 10
FHEQ level 6
Course work includes:
4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
4 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No residential school

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