Developing the knowledge of number digits in a child-like robot


Number knowledge can be boosted initially by embodied strategies such as the use of fingers. This Article explores the perceptual process of grounding number symbols in artificial agents, particularly the iCub robot—a child-like humanoid with fully functional, five-fingered hands. It studies the application of convolutional neural network models in the context of cognitive developmental robotics, where the training information is likely to be gradually acquired while operating, rather than being abundant and fully available as in many machine learning scenarios. The experimental analyses show increased efficiency of the training and similarities with studies in developmental psychology. Indeed, the proprioceptive information from the robot hands can improve accuracy in the recognition of spoken digits by supporting a quicker creation of a uniform number line. In conclusion, these findings reveal a novel way for the humanization of artificial training strategies, where the embodiment can make the robot’s learning more efficient and understandable for humans.


The embodied cognition theory affirms that human intelligence is formed not only by the brain, but is also shaped by the body and the experiences acquired through it, such as manipulatives, gestures and movements1,2,3,4. Research in developmental psychology has shown that embodied experiences help children in learning various cognitive skills by using limbs and senses to interact with the surrounding environment and other human beings5.

Among the human cognitive skills that can be extended through bodily experiences, number processing is particularly valuable because it can provide a window into the neuronal mechanisms of high-level brain functions6. Numbers constitute the building blocks of mathematics, a language of the human mind that can express fundamental properties of the physical world and make the universe intelligible7. Therefore, understanding how the artificial sensorimotor system embodies numerical processes can also help to answer the wider question of how bodily (real or artificial) systems support and scaffold the development of abstract cognitive skills8.

Within the embodied mathematics framework, fingers are spontaneous tools that play a crucial role in developing number cognition until a level of basic arithmetic is achieved (for details see recent reviews9,10). In particular, Gunderson et al11. observed that young children can better communicate their knowledge about numbers using hand gestures rather than with words, particularly for numbers that they have not yet learned in speech. In fact, one of the most evident embodied interactions with cognition is the use of fingers to convey both cardinal and ordinal aspects of numbers: finger montring12 refers to the use of finger configurations to represent cardinal number information; finger counting and pointing gestures are used to support ordinal representation for counting quantities or doing basic arithmetic operations13,14. In a short review15, Di Luca and Pesenti have shown that “finger-counting/montring activities, especially if practised at an early age, can contribute to a fast and deep understanding of number concepts, which has an impact during the entire cycle of life by providing the sensory-motor roots onto which the number concept grows”. The essential role of motor contribution was validated by Sixtus et al16., who compared visual images with actively produced finger postures (motor priming) and showed that only canonical motor finger posing has a significant positive effect on number processing. The concept of embodied cognition extends the role of fingers beyond just another external material (for example blocks, Cuisenaire rods) for learning how to process numbers. Instead, internal finger-based representations provide a natural numerical representation that facilitates the development of initial mathematical cognition17. More specifically, Butterworth18 suggested that “without the ability to attach number representations to the neural representations of fingers and hands in their normal locations, the numbers themselves will never have a normal representation in the brain”. These ideas from behavioural research were confirmed and extended by neuroimaging research in the area of embodied mathematics (a recent literature review can be found in ref. 19), where empirical studies have suggested a neural link or even a common substrate for the representation of fingers and numbers in the human brain20. In the neuroimaging data, neural correlates of finger and number representations can be located in neighbouring, or even overlapping, cortex areas21. Therefore, it is suggested that finger processing may play a role in setting up the biological neural networks on which more advanced mathematical computations are built22.

Numerous studies have also shown a permanent neural link between finger configurations and their cardinal number meaning in adulthood. For instance, researchers have found that adult humans still activate the same motor cortex areas that control fingers while processing digits and number words, even if motor actions are inhibited23. Tschentscher et al24. hypothesized that the link is the result of an association in the early stages of number learning, when finger configurations are used by both teachers and children to represent numbers while explaining mathematical concepts. Indeed, hand gestures are often observed when teaching mathematical concepts as a way of scaffolding students’ understanding25, especially when communicating new material26. Several authors27,28 show that children who observe gesture while learning mathematics perform better than children who do not, and that gesture during teaching encourages children to produce gestures of their own, which, in turn, can enhance the training and allow them to consolidate and transfer the learning of abstract concepts. However, while children often use fingers to support their early mathematical learning, and this habit correlates with better performance in initial stages, they do not need gestures in later stages after they have successfully learned the basic concepts29. The use of fingers while learning about numbers has also generated a debate between researchers in neurocognition and education, with the latter concerned that relying on fingers can be detrimental for the later numerical development. These authors recommend the use of finger representations only at early stages, to be replaced at later stages by concrete structured representations and, finally, mental representations of numbers to perform numerical operations30.

An innovative approach for studying the embodied learning is cognitive developmental robotics (CDR), which was defined as the “interdisciplinary approach to the autonomous design of behavioural and cognitive capabilities in artificial agents (robots) that takes direct inspiration from the developmental principles and mechanisms observed in natural cognitive systems (children)”31. The application of embodied theory in artificial agents is among the motivations for designing new robotic platforms for research to resemble the shape of a human body, known as ‘humanoids’, such as ASIMO32, and in particular that of a child, notably iCub33. One of the postulates of CDR is that the humanization of the learning process can help to make artificial intelligence more understandable for humans and may increase the acceptance of robots in social environments34. CDR is still making its first steps, but it has already been successfully applied in the modelling of embodied word learning, as well as in the development of perceptual, social, language and numerical cognition35,36, and recently extended as far as the simulation of embodied motor and spatial imagery37,38.

Yet, only a few attempts have been made so far to simulate embodied number learning in robots39, mostly aimed at investigating finger counting with synthetic datasets. For example, inspired by the earlier work by Alibali and Di Russo14, Ruciński et al40. presented a model in which pointing gestures significantly improve the counting accuracy of iCub. De La Cruz, Di Nuovo et al41,42,43. investigated artificial models for learning finger counting (motor), Arabic digit recognition (visual) and spoken digits (auditory) to explore whether finger counting and its association with spoken or Arabic digits could serve to bootstrap number cognition. These experiments show that learning number word sequences together with finger sequencing speeds up the building of the neural network’s internal representations, resulting in patterns that better capture the similarities between numbers. In fact, the internal representations of finger configurations can represent the ideal basis for the building of an embodied number representation in the robot. Subsequently, Di Nuovo et al44. presented a deep learning model that was validated in a simulation of the embodied learning behaviour of bicultural children using different finger counting habits to support their number learning. Recently, Di Nuovo45 presented a ‘shallow’ embodied model for handwritten digit recognition that incorporates the link hypothesized by Tschentscher et al24. Simulations showed how the robot fingers could boost the performance and be as effective as the cardinal numerosity magnitude that has been proposed to be the ideal computational representation for artificial mathematical abilities46. Moving to arithmetic, Di Nuovo47 investigated a long short-term memory (LSTM) architecture for modelling the addition operation of handwritten digits using an embodied strategy. The results confirm an improved accuracy in performing the simultaneous recognition and addition of the digits with a higher frequency of split-five errors, in line with observations in studies with humans48.

All of these studies provided valuable information about the simulation of artificial learning and demonstrated the value of the CDR approach to studying aspects of numerical cognition. However, even if they apply machine intelligence methods, they lack generalization and applicability in this field. Indeed, like many other CDR studies, those presented above are based on simple, shallow models trained on synthetic data, which were often created ad hoc for the study. For instance, early models41,42,43 were a simple recurrent network trained and tested on the same database of just 10 synthesized spoken number words and 5 × 2 black and white pixel visual digits, and no alternate representations were compared. Vice versa, two recent studies45,47 made use of the popular MNIST database of real handwritten digits, but they used an implausible setting in the context of early cognitive development, where speech usually precedes and then accompanies writing. To substantially contribute to the progress of the state of the art in machine intelligence, research is needed to properly contextualize the simulations of developmental learning in deeper neural network architectures, while demonstrating applicability to real datasets and problems.

In this Article, we apply the CDR approach to the recognition of real spoken digits by presenting a deep convolutional neural network (CNN) architecture designed to apply the embodiment principles by using the sensory-motor information from an artificial humanoid body, iCub, which is one of the few platforms that has fully functional five-fingered hands49. The spoken digits are taken from a novel open database for speech recognition, created by Google to facilitate new applications50. Simulating the developmental plasticity of the human brain, the models are trained using a two-stage approach, known as transfer learning51, in which the robot learns first to associate spoken digits and finger representations—that is, motor patterns specifying the state of each of the robot’s fingers (extended or open versus closed or retracted). The network is then extended with new layers to perform the classification into the number classes by building on the previously learned association. In the first scenario, the training procedure simulates how children initially behave while learning to recognize symbolic numerals (in the form of spoken digits), in particular when learning number words by repeating them together with the corresponding finger sequence to help the transition from preverbal to verbal counting and computation52. In the second scenario, we present a longitudinal analysis that gives useful insights into how biologically inspired strategies can improve deep CNN performance in the context of applied robotics, where the training information is likely to be gradually acquired while operating, rather than being abundant and fully available, as in the majority of machine learning scenarios.

Recognizing spoken digits in a cognitive developmental robot

Here the experimental results of the CNN architecture designed to simulate the embodied learning to recognize spoken number digits in comparison with a standard non-embodied baseline are presented. Figure 1 presents the schematics of the baseline (left) and embodied (right) networks. Three possible internal representations, two embodied and one control, are considered and compared. (1) The cardinal numerosity using a thermometer representation. In this representation, the first neuron in a set of nine is active for the number 1, the first two are active for the number 2 and so on. (2) The iCub robot encoder values of the right and left hand when displaying the finger representations of digits (See inset in Fig. 1, and Supplementary Fig. 1). These representations indicate the number magnitude using the number of open fingers, although the numbers 3 and 4 and 8 and 9 involve only partially overlapping sets of fingers. (3) Random numbers in the range [0,1], which are used as the control for validation. As an additional control condition, we also applied the transfer learning approach to the baseline model by pretraining the convolutional blocks using the same random values as targets. The distribution of the examples for each scenario is presented in Table 1. Further details about the models, the embodied representations and the spoken digit database are in the Methods.

Fig. 1: Schematics of the artificial neural network architecture.

The baseline CNN architecture is on the left, whereas the detail of the Conv2D blocks is on the top right. The embodied architecture is created including the embodied layer (on the right). In the first stage, the layers in red are those pretrained to reproduce the embodied representation (for example, output is the positions for the robot’s finger motors). After the pretraining, the embodied model is completed by linking the embodied layer to the final dropout layer; the full embodied architecture can thus be trained both to classify the spoken digits and to reproduce the embodied representations. Table 2 gives a summary of the layers with details of the parameters, arguments and initialization. The embodied representation (green text) represents the output for the pretraining and for the full architecture. The likelihood of the number class (blue text) represents the output for the full architecture.

Table 1 Dataset distributions

In the following, we label embodied models when the architecture in Fig. 1 is trained with the cardinal numerosity or the iCub robot fingers as targets for the embodied layer. Cardinal numerosity can be considered the ideal embodied representation of number magnitude, while the fingers are its real-world implementation. Instead, we define as a control model if the targets are the random values. The two other conditions are the simple baseline, which is the one that goes straight from the input to the classification layer on the left of Fig. 1 and the pretrained baseline, which has the same baseline architecture, but the CNN blocks are pretrained similarly to the control model using random values as targets. The baselines and the control model are also considered as control conditions.

Deep learning architecture for simulating embodied learning

To explore the embodied learning of numbers in the iCub robot, we designed a baseline and an embodied connectionist model for classifying spoken digits. These models are based on a deep CNN classifier with 19 layers, the first 13 layers of which are shared between spoken digit recognition and embodied motor control. The CNN is an essential part of the network for selecting the right features to present to the actual classifier (that is, the hidden and classification layers), but they only account for 20–25% of the trainable parameters of our models.

Architectures based on CNNs are naturally fit to implement the ‘transfer learning’ approach because the convolutional layers can extract inherent properties from examples, which can be independent of the problem and, therefore, be generalized and used as a base for different problems. This strategy saves computational resources (time and memory) because the convolutional blocks have 73,632 parameters, representing just 20.83% of the full embodied model, which in total has 353,545 parameters when trained with the iCub fingers.

The baseline is a relatively simple, but effective, deep CNN architecture that includes a sequence of 3 classical two-dimensional convolutional blocks, which have a combined total of 73,632 trainable parameters, whereas the baseline network includes a total of 320,041 trainable parameters. The embodied model is created by extending the baseline by adding a dense layer named embodied (15 in Table 2), which serves both as an output for the embodied representations associated with the spoken digits and provides these representations as an input to the final classification layer (19). With the additional layer, there are two weighted connections that increase the number of trainable parameters to 353,545. The embodied model is trained in two steps: first, the shared CNN blocks and the embodied layer (red in Fig. 1, layers 1–15 in Table 2) are trained to associate digit images with embodied representations, then the remaining layers (blue in Fig. 1, 16–19 in Table 2) are connected and the full model is tuned to classify the spoken digits. In the full training phase, the loss is the weighted sum of the losses for the two outputs, both weighted 1.0. Unless otherwise stated, the layers are regular, densely connected layers, where all units are connected to the others.

Table 2 Summary of the CNN architecture

From the machine learning point of view, the embodied strategy could be also seen as a bio-inspired alternative to the “auxiliary” classifiers that were introduced in the Google Inception network to prevent the middle part of the network from “dying out” because of the limitations of backpropagation algorithms in propagating the error through the many layers of deep CNN53.

The network parameters, for example number of units for each layer, were set on the baseline via a trial-and-error procedure using the final performance (accuracy) as a criterion for the selection. In fact, the baseline model, when fully trained, can achieve a final accuracy of over 97% with the test set.

Scenario 1

Scenario 1 is learning to process spoken digits while acquiring counting principles. This section presents a simplified simulation of the early number processing, when children initially learn the number digits while repeating them by rote together with the finger representations52. The first phase includes the acquisition of the one-to-one principle (that is, assigning one counting word to each item in a set)54. In this scenario, the models are initially pretrained using a smaller subset of uniformly distributed examples. Examples were grouped in batches formed by four sequences of the nine digits in their cardinal order.

Next, inspired by the children using finger representations while communicating number words, this simulated number learning scenario continues by training the robot to classify the spoken digits while reproducing the corresponding finger representations. This second training phase can be associated with the acquisition of the cardinal principle, which is defined as learning that “the last number spoken, when counting a set of items, tell how many items are in the set”54. For a proper simulation of digit learning at this developmental stage, the appropriate distribution of the training examples should follow the Zipf’s empirical law that the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its frequency rank55. Therefore, as explained in the Methods, we created an ad hoc dataset to match the Zipfian distribution. To simulate a gradual education as in the case of children, we considered three quotas (25%, 50% and 100%) of the Zipfian training sample from which we extracted three uniform subsets for the pretraining.

The models’ performance during the second training phase is presented in Fig. 2, where the graphs show the accuracy rate on the test set at the end of each training epoch. They include the pretrained baseline (blue lines), the embodied models with the iCub robot fingers (purple), the Cardinal Numerosity (red) and the control model with random values (green). For all three training sample sizes, we see a significant increase in the accuracy for the models using either the cardinality numerosity or the iCub robot representation compared with either of the other two control conditions, with a stronger initial effect for the smaller sample sizes where Cohen’s d is >1. Figure 2c shows that the accuracy on the test set grows quickly until after around 22 epochs (median) when it starts to oscillate, as is usual for CNNs, with little or no improvement but without significant overfitting. For this reason, we decided to stop the training after 25 epochs and average the accuracies of the epochs with the lowest loss.

Fig. 2: Accuracy rate on the test set over epochs.

ac, The accuracy rates of the embodied models and pretrained control conditions are shown for the small (pretraining = 774 uniformly distributed examples, full training = 2,193 examples; a), medium (pretraining = 1,548 uniformly distributed examples, full training = 4,386 examples; b) and large (pretraining = 3,096 uniformly distributed examples, full training = 8,773; c) groups. All full training examples have a Zipfian distribution.

Table 3 gives a comparative report of results after the first and the last epoch of the training. Accuracy rates and standard deviations (s.d.) on the test set are shown for the embodied and control conditions along with the Cohen’s d for comparison with the pretrained baseline. After the first epoch, the performance of the control model with random values was always significantly inferior to the other two representations; even if its average accuracy was typically higher, the control model was not significantly better than the pretrained baseline and Cohen’s d always indicated a small effect size (d < 0.5).

Table 3 Accuracy rates for varying training example sizes and different representations

The cardinal numerosity and the iCub fingers represent the magnitude of the digits, which can explain the better performance because they contribute to the acquisition of a more linear number line. They are faster at improving the accuracy for bigger digits, which are more difficult because they are less represented in the Zipfian distribution of the training set. The correlation among improved numerical categorization, increasingly linear number line estimation and numerical magnitude in children was shown by Laski and Siegler56. To exemplify the advantage, Table 4 summarizes the development of average accuracy rates for the groups of smaller (1–4) and bigger (5–9) digits. This analysis permits a comparison with experimental data for children, who can label small set sizes exactly (1–4) and larger set sizes approximately (5–9) while learning the cardinal principle57. Without pretending to replicate the study, we note that all of our models show a progression similar to that observed in children, who progress their knowledge starting from the smaller numbers, then gradually improving the others along the number line.

Table 4 Accuracy progression for smaller and bigger digits

It is interesting to note that we did not find relevant differences between the cardinal numerosity representation and the iCub finger configurations, except for the final performance with a medium training size, in which there is a medium effect (d = 0.6312) in favour of cardinal numerosity. However, they both contributed equally to modelling a more uniform number line, even if, in the case of the robot, there are the same numbers of simulated motor activations for 3 and 4 or 8 and 9. Besides, pertaining to any of the four kinds considered provides a jump start for subsequent learning compared to the baseline with no pretraining (results not shown for conciseness), as expected. A comparison with the simple baseline is discussed in detail in the next subsection.

Scenario 2

Scenario 2 is a longitudinal study of spoken digit recognition in embodied artificial agents. We present the results that show how performance evolves with the training and the number of examples available for it. To analyse the gradual development of spoken digit recognition, we split the training examples and investigated the models’ performance with varying numbers of examples. For simplicity, we will refer to the groups as small (128, 512 and 1,024), medium (2,788 and 5,576) and large (13,942 and 27,884). The training and testing sets have a pseudo-uniform distribution, as specified in Table 1. In this experimental scenario, the artificial learner used a portion (25%) of the training dataset for a quick pretraining of the CNN blocks.

Figure 3a–c presents the history of the average accuracy rate on the test set at the end of each epoch for the small, medium and large groups, respectively. As seen in the previous experiment, we avoided significant overfitting by using common strategies such as mini-batches, batch normalization layers and dropout layers.

Fig. 3: Accuracy rate on the test set over epochs.

ac, The accuracy rates of the embodied models and control conditions are shown for the small (pretraining = 32, 128, 256, training = 128, 512, 1,024 examples; a), medium (pretraining = 697, 1,394, full training = 2,788, 5,576; b) and large (pretraining = 3,485, 6,971, full training = 13,942, 27,884; c) groups. In the groups, training with larger sets always achieved higher accuracy and there is no overlap among the lines of different groups. The only exception is the simple baseline (light blue) in a because the line for 1,024 starts below the previous case (512). For clarity, in b and c it is specified the training set size for the baselines (the legend in b also applies to c). The black horizontal lines in c mark the best overall results.

The results of the longitudinal experiment are summarized in Table 5, which presents the embodied models in a comparison with two control conditions: control model with the random values (first columns), and the simple baseline (last columns). Accuracies on the test set are calculated by averaging the results of the epochs with lowest training loss at half way (25 epochs) and at the end of the training (50 epochs). The last section of Table 5 reports the first epoch when average accuracy was greater than 99% of the baseline’s final accuracy. This is a measure of how fast the training converges. We see that control conditions reached the same accuracy of the embodied models after more training repetitions (epochs). Exceptions were found in the medium group (Fig. 3b), where the control model was as accurate as the embodied models earlier in the training (after 10 epochs; 2,788) and was almost as good as the embodied models since the beginning (5,576).

Table 5 Summary of the results on the test set

In summary, the longitudinal experiments confirmed that the embodied models were more effective learners than the control conditions: they achieved higher recognition accuracies in fewer epochs, especially with the smaller training sets. The embodied models were significantly more successful than the baseline, with exceptions in the larger group, when they achieved a higher accuracy but there was no statistical difference. The embodied models were often more accurate than the control model, with some exceptions—when training with 1,024 and 2,788 examples after 50 epochs, for example. However, while embodied models performed better until around 25 epochs, their advantage usually decreased with continued training, often lacking statistically significant differences if compared with the control model final accuracy. These results can be linked to the transition from early to mature mathematical cognition in children, who initially perform better when they can use finger representations, then gradually abandon them for other strategies29.

Comparing the embodied models’ representations, the two were statistically equivalent in terms of performance (see Supplementary Table 2). This confirmed that the physically embodied representation is as good as the pure cardinality representation, while it captures the real motor activation data of the robot. Supplementary Table 3 shows a comparison of the control conditions. As seen in Scenario 1, the comparison showed that the control model often has a higher final accuracy, but it was not significantly different from the pretrained baseline. However, the pretrained baseline was slower than the control model, that is, it often reached the peak accuracy later.


Recent studies in developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience demonstrated a pivotal role of fingers in developing number cognition. Inspired by these studies, this Article investigated the perceptual process of recognizing spoken digits in deep CNNs by embodying them in iCub’s fingers during the training. In particular, finger representations replicated activations in motor cortex when processing numbers that reflect the hand used for counting as seen in humans24.

Simulation results showed that the robot’s fingers boost the performance by setting up the network and augmenting the training examples when these were numerically limited. This is a common scenario in robotics, where robots can learn from a small amount of data. Results can be related to some behaviours that were also observed in several human studies in developmental psychology and neuroimaging. Overall, the hand-based representation provided our artificial system with information about magnitude representations that improved the creation of a more uniform number line, as seen in children56,57. Interestingly, our results also indicate that accuracy can be increased by pretraining convolutional blocks with a uniform subset taken from a non-uniform training set. Furthermore, longitudinal experimentation showed that the performance improvement from the representation of the robot’s fingers was reduced with experience, in a similar manner to the transition from early to mature mathematical cognition in children, who initially perform better when they can use fingers, but, after they grow in experience, gradually abandon finger representations without affecting accuracy29.

Comparative analyses showed that the embodied strategy can represent an approach to increase efficiency in training deep neural networks outside the context of robotics. Importantly, cognitive developmental robotics were demonstrated to be effective using the standard approach in a benchmark machine learning problem. We saw performance improvements with other synthetic representations too, such as cardinal numerosity or, in some conditions, even vectors of randomly generated values. Although cardinal numerosity showed a similar performance to the iCub fingers, the control model with random values often underperformed and was not significantly different from the other control conditions.

Like their biological counterparts, the robot’s fingers seem better suited than other synthetic representations for simulating early mathematical education in interactive scenarios with a child-like robot. Indeed, they are more likely to be presented and intuitively understood by humans without requiring advanced communication with the robot. For instance, examples of spoken digits can be proactively acquired by the robot by showing finger representations and asking: “what number is this?” Human teachers may also simply open and close the robot’s fingers to instruct the robot or correct the representation in the case of errors.

In conclusion, we believe that these findings validate the cognitive developmental robotics approach as a tool for implementing embodied cognition ideas, and for developing machine intelligence while making artificial learning more intuitive for humans.


The Google Tensorflow Speech commands dataset

To provide a realistic numerical challenge to our models, we used a new publicly available benchmark in machine learning: the Google Tensorflow Speech commands dataset50. The accompanying paper50 reports a basic benchmark of 88.2% (on the whole database of spoken commands) and the best result reported in the Leaderboard of the 2017 TensorFlow Speech Recognition Challenge58 was 91.06% on the first version of the database.

Here, we used the second version of the database, which contains 105,829 1-s-long utterances of 35 short words, by thousands of different people. The digits are around one-third of the database, which includes 34,856 spoken digits from 1 to 9 that we randomly split into an 80% (27,884) training set and a 20% (6,972) testing set. For Scenario 1, we aimed for a standard child development scenario, where the analysis of number word frequencies in natural corpora55,59 suggests that smaller numbers are more frequent than larger numbers. This implied that frequencies of digits should decrease proportionally to their numerical magnitude. For this reason, we created an ad hoc training dataset with a Zipfian distribution by extracting examples with frequency 1/N, where N is the numerical value of the digit. The distribution of the examples for each scenario is presented in Table 1.

The original files are 16-bit little-endian PCM-encoded in the WAVE format at a 16 KHz sample rate. For our experiments, these were preprocessed using a standard approach that makes use of the short-time Fourier transform (STFT). The resulting samples are 90 × 63 STFT spectrograms; these were rescaled to be in the range [0,1], which is optimal for training artificial neural networks.

Note that in this study, we did not include the zeros because there is no finger representation that can be associated with them. This is coherent with all empirical studies about embodied arithmetic in the literature, where tasks usually do not include the zero (for example, see refs. 11,24) because of its special status among numbers.

In our experiments, the database is split into smaller sets to simulate a gradual course of education typical for the children, by investigating the models’ performance of varying size of training examples. This also allows us to gather information on the efficacy and efficiency of the proposed embodied strategy in scenarios where examples are scarce. The division is obtained simply by taking a sequence of consecutive examples from the main database. The sequences are varied among the 32 runs, Algorithm 1 describes the procedure. For Scenario 1, the sizes considered were 25%, 50% and 100% of the Zipfian dataset. For Scenario 2, we aimed for a more fine-grained analysis, with seven set sizes. The 3 smallest sizes were selected as multipliers of the mini-batch size (32), while the others were respectively 10%, 20%, 50% and 100% of the training dataset.

The source code for the implementation can be found in the GitHub repository (files:;;; see the data availability). Supplementary Figure 2 shows examples of the spectrograms.

Simulated internal representations

Three fixed codes are used to simulate the embodied representations of the digits from one to nine:

  • The cardinal numerosity, which represents a cardinal number N with the same quantity of ones. If the number of available digits for the representation is greater than N, then zeros are included to fill. In our case, we used nine digits to represent the numbers, with 1 represented as 100000000 and 9 as 111111111 and, for instance, the representation of N = 4 is 111100000. The cardinal numerosity has cognitive plausibility and it has been shown to facilitate learning for symbolic and ordinal representations60. Indeed, neural network models based on the numerosity representation can account for a wide range of empirical data46. In the context of this article, the cardinal numerosity is an abstract representation; however, it could synthetically represent a set of objects that the robot can produce, providing an alternate method to the use of fingers while learning about numbers.

  • The iCub robot encoder values for the finger representations. The iCub is an open-source humanoid robot platform designed to facilitate embodied artificial intelligence research33. The iCub provides motor proprioception (joint angles) of the fingers’ motors, for a total of seven degrees of freedom for each hand as follows: two degrees of freedom for each of the thumb, index and middle fingers, and one for controlling both ring and pinky fingers, which are coupled together61. However, this limitation is also common in human beings, who often cannot freely move these two fingers independently62. To overcome the possible distortion by unbalanced representations, the contribution of the motors controlling two fingers is double; we therefore have 16 inputs that we normalized in the [0,1] range. Pictures of the iCub finger representations are shown in Supplementary Fig. 1, which shows the right hand. Note that the finger configurations of each hand are replicating American Sign Language number representation from one to five. Indeed, the representations with the left hand are specular, and they are used in addition to the fully open right hand to represent numbers from 6 (5+1) to 9 (5+4). The finger representations of American Sign Language were selected to represent the embodied internal representation as an appropriate solution to a limitation of the iCub hand. Also, some physical limitation prevents some fingers from being fully opened or closed, for example the thumb (see Supplementary Video 1 of the iCub counting from 1 to 10). The numerical values of the encoders can be found in the file named robot.cvs in the database folder of the GitHub repository (see data availability).

  • Random numbers in the range [0,1] as ‘control’ representations. In this case, 9 vectors of 16 random numbers are created and associated with the numbers. These representations are generated for each run and remain stable for the entire training. Random representations are included as a control group to confirm the performance contribution is due to the embodied signals rather than other factors.

It should be noted that while arbitrary random gestures are suitable in computer simulations for control conditions, it is unlikely that they would be successful in realistic scenarios because they will require preliminary training to be executed and it is unlikely that human teachers can be precise in repeating them; that is, there will be significant noise and systematic errors to disrupt the training.

Neural network implementation details

To improve understanding of the Article, we give an overview of the layers that comprise the architectures and the methods used for learning in the following subsections. The overview is not intended to be exhaustive; the aim is to facilitate a general understanding of the methods used in this work and to point the inexperienced reader towards the relevant sources. The models were implemented, trained and tested using Python and Keras 2.2.463 high-level application program interfaces (APIs) running on top of TensorFlow 1.8.064. Greater detail can be found in the documentation of these tools available from the respective websites.

The rectified linear unit layer

The label ReLU is commonly used to identify a layer with rectified linear units, which apply a non-saturating activation function:

$${\mathrm {ReLU}}\left( x \right) = {\mathrm{max}}(0,x)$$

This layer increases the nonlinear properties of the decision function and of the overall network. In our models, the ReLU layers proved to be more effective than the classical sigmoid.

The sigmoid layer

A sigmoid layer is formed of units with the most common transfer function for artificial neural networks, the sigmoid:

$${\mathrm {sigmoid}}\left( x \right) = \frac{{\mathrm {e}^x}}{{\mathrm {e}^x + 1}}$$

The convolutional layer

Convolutional layers characterize the convolutional blocks; they are one of the most successful instruments for building deep learning architectures65,66, which represent the current state of the art in computer vision, and are inspired by biological organization and visual cortex processes in animals and humans67. The convolutional layers enable artificial neural networks to extract the main features from an image and recognize patterns by learning about the shapes of objects.

In a convolutional layer, each unit is repeatedly activated by a receptive field (typically rectangular), which is connected via a weight vector (a filter) to single-input sensory neurons. The receptive field is shifted step by step across a two-dimensional array of input values, such as the frequency for a time step.

The max pooling layer

Another important concept of CNNs is pooling, which is a form of nonlinear downsampling. There are several nonlinear functions for implementing pooling, amongst which max pooling is the most common because it has been shown that max pooling can give a better performance than other pooling operations68. The pooling layer partitions the input image into a set of non-overlapping rectangles and, for each such subregion, outputs the maximum. The pooling layer serves to progressively reduce the spatial size of the representation, to reduce the number of parameters and amount of computation in the network, and also to control overfitting. The pooling operation provides another form of translation invariance.

The classification layer

The final layer of the models (Classification_Layer) uses the softmax transfer function that naturally ensures all output values are between 0 and 1, and that their sum is 1. The output of a softmax classifier is a probability/likelihood; a classification output layer is also trained to transform the probabilities into one of the classes. The total number of classes considered in our experiment is 9, which corresponds to the digits from 1 to 9.

The softmax function used is as follows:

$${\mathrm {softmax}}\ \left( {{{\mathbf {x}}},i} \right) = \frac{{\mathrm {e}^{x_i}}}{{\mathop {\sum }\nolimits_{j=1}^n {\mathrm {e}}^{x_j}}}$$

where the vector x is the net input to a softmax node and n is the number of nodes in the softmax layer.

The other layers

The other layers included in our models are:

  • The Dropout layer, which operates by randomly dropping a fraction of input at each update at training time. Dropout layers help to prevent overfitting69. The drop rate of the dropout layers in the three convolutional blocks is 0.25, while the last drop rate is 0.5.

  • The Flatten layer, which reshapes multidimensional inputs into a one-dimensional output vector. This layer does not apply a transfer function and it is transparent to the learning, but it is needed to enable the transition from convolutional layers to standard layers.

  • The batch normalization (BatchNorm) layer, which scales the output of the previous layer by standardizing the activations of each input variable per mini-batch. This has the effect of inducing a more predictive and stable behaviour of the gradients, which allows faster training70.

The dropout and batch normalization layers are inserted to reduce overfitting and improve the generalization performance.


The layer initializers used were:

  • He Uniform71, which uses a uniform distribution within \(\left[ { - \sqrt {6/Nw_{\mathrm {in}}} ,\sqrt {6/Nw_{\mathrm {in}}} } \right]\) where \(Nw_{\mathrm {in}}\) is the number of inputs of the layer.

  • Glorot Uniform72, which draws samples from a uniform distribution within \(\left[ { - \sqrt {6/(Nw_{\mathrm {in}} + Nw_{\mathrm {out}})} , + \sqrt {6/(Nw_{\mathrm {in}} + Nw_{\mathrm {out}})} } \right]\) where \(Nw_{\mathrm{out}}\) is the number of outputs.

Algorithms for training the networks

After some preliminary tests with the optimization algorithms included in the Keras framework, we selected two adaptive learning methods, based on stochastic gradient descent, for training the models: RMSprop and the adaptive moment estimation algorithm (Adam). As recommended, we left the parameters of this optimizer at their default values, which follow those provided in the original publications cited below. The training was executed in mini-batches of 16 or 32 examples, full and pretraining respectively. The use of mini-batches proved to improve the generalization of the network, that is the accuracy in the test set.

The root mean square propagation (RMSprop) method73 is a gradient-based method that maintains per-parameter learning rates, which are divided by a moving average \(\hat v\left( {\theta ,t} \right)\) of the squared gradient for each model parameter θ:

$$\theta \left( {t + 1} \right) = \theta \left( t \right) - \frac{\eta }{{\sqrt {\hat v(\theta ,t)} }} \frac{{\partial L}}{{\partial {{\theta }}}}(t)$$

Where \(\frac{{\partial L}}{{\partial \theta }}(t)\) is the gradient of the loss function L(t) at epoch t, η is the learning rate, which, in our experiments, has been set as 0.001. \(\hat v(\theta ,t)\) is calculated as:

$$\hat v(\theta ,t) = \gamma \cdot \hat v\left( {\theta ,t - 1} \right) + (1 - \gamma ) \left( {\frac{{\partial L}}{{\partial \theta }}(t)} \right)^2$$

where γ is 0.9, as suggested in ref. 74. RMSprop can be seen as a mini-batch version of Rprop73.

Adam75 combines the advantages of RMSprop and Adagrad. In fact, Adam is widely used in the field of deep learning because it is fast and achieves good results. Like RMSprop, Adam also makes use of a moving average of the squared gradient \(\hat v(\theta ,t)\), but it keeps an exponentially decaying average of past gradients \(\hat m(\theta ,t)\), similar to the momentum. The parameter update in Adam is given by:

$$\theta \left( {t + 1} \right) = \theta \left( t \right) - \eta \frac{{\hat m(\theta ,t)}}{{\sqrt {\hat v(\theta ,t)} }}$$

Specifically, \(\hat v(\theta ,t)\) and \(\hat m(\theta ,t)\) are calculated using the parameters β1 and β2 to control the decay rates of past and past squared gradients \(\hat{m}(\theta,t)\) and \(\hat{v}(\theta,t)\) respectively as follows:

$$\hat m\left( {\theta ,t + 1} \right) = \frac{{\hat{m}\left( {\theta ,t} \right)}}{{1 - \beta _1^t}}\;{\mathrm{where}}\; \hat{m}\left( {\theta ,t} \right) = \beta _1 m\left( {\theta ,t - 1} \right) + \left( {1 - \beta _1} \right) \frac{{\partial L}}{{\partial \theta }}\left( t \right)$$
$$\hat v\left( {\theta ,t + 1} \right) = \frac{{\hat{v}\left( {\theta ,t} \right)}}{{1 - \beta _2^t}}\;{\mathrm{where}}\;\hat{v}\left( {\theta ,t} \right) = \beta _2 v\left( {\theta ,t - 1} \right) + \left( {1 - \beta _2} \right) \left( {\frac{{\partial L}}{{\partial \theta }}\left( t \right)} \right)^2$$

Note that \(\beta _1^t\) and \(\beta _2^t\) denote the parameters β1 and β2 to the power of t; m(θ,0) = 0 and ν(θ,0) = 0.

Good default settings are η = 0.001, β1 = 0.9 and β2 = 0.999. These values are used in our experiments.

In our experiments, Adam was used to train the final classifiers, while RMSprop was used in the regression tasks, where it showed the best performance (that is, when the learning target was the embodied representations used to pretrain the CNN layers).

Loss function

The loss function L(t) was the cross-entropy function, which computes the performance given by network outputs and targets in such a way that extremely inaccurate outputs are heavily penalized, while a very small penalty is given to almost-correct classifications.

The calculation of the cross-entropy H depends on the task: categorical HC when classifying into the number classes; binary HB when predicting the embodied representations.

In the case of classification, the output p is a categorical vector of N probabilities that represent the likelihood of each of the N classes with \({\sum} {{{\mathbf {p}}} = 1}\), while \({\tilde{\mathbf{y}}}\) is a one-hot encoded vector (1 for the target class, 0 for the rest). HC is calculated as the average of the cross-entropy of each pair of output-target elements (classes):

$$H_{\mathrm {C}} = \frac{1}{N}\mathop {\sum }\limits_{i=1}^N - \widetilde {\mathbf{y}}_{i} \cdot \log (p_i)$$

When the target is the embodied representation, the output is a vector z of K independent elements. The cross-entropy can be calculated by considering two binary classes: one corresponds to the target value, the other is zero. In this case, the loss function is calculated using the HB expression:

$$H_{\mathrm {B}} = \frac{1}{K}\mathop {\sum }\limits_{i=1}^K - \widetilde {\mathrm{y}}_{i} \cdot \log (z_i) - (1 - \widetilde {\mathrm{y}}_{i}) \cdot \log (1 - z_i)$$

Training and testing procedures

We ran the training 32 times with random parameter initializations. The stopping criterion was a fixed number of epochs (25 for the first experiment and all of the pretraining, 50 for the second). The final performance was calculated as the average of the accuracies on the test set after the epoch with the lowest loss for each run. The following pseudocode summarizes the training and testing procedure for our experiments.

For clarity, details on the statistical analysis used are given in the Supplementary Information.

Algorithm 1 Pseudo-algorithm of the training procedure

N = 27884 #number of training examples

 For \({{i}} \in [1,32]\) #number of runs for each model was 32

 Random = generate_random_normal_distribution(9;[0,1]) #generates 9 representations; each has 16 random values in [0,1]

   For each \({{K}} \in \left\{ {\left\{ {2193,4386,8773} \right\}} \right.\) #Scenario 1: Zipfian distribution

 |{128,512,1024,2788,5576,13942,27884}}#Scenario 2: standard semi-uniform distribution

   train_interval = [(K*((i−1)%(int(N/K))),K*(i%int(N/K))}] #the train interval covers as much of the training dataset as possible.






     output=(random|num_mag|robot)) #embodied architecture only

    train(full_model, optimizer=adam,

     epochs=(25|50) #25 for experiment 1; 50 for experiment 2


     input= SPOKEN_DIGITS_TRAIN[train_interval],


     loss=1.0*classifier_loss+1.0*embodied_loss) #full training

    \({\mathrm{accuracy}}_i\left( {k,{\mathrm{epoch}}} \right) =\)evaluate(full_model, input= SPOKEN_DIGITS_TEST)

Note that, in the case of 128,512 and 1,024 examples, all runs had a different portion of the training set, while in the other cases they cycle among 10, 5 and 2 folds of the training set.

Data availability

The data for the models presented in this paper can be found in the GitHub repository: A Supplementary Video of the iCub counting from 1 to 10 is also provided. The Google Tensorflow Speech Command database can be downloaded from

Code availability

The source code for the models presented in this paper can be found in the GitHub repository:


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A.D.N. acknowledges the support of the EPSRC through project grant no. EP/P030033/1 (NUMBERS). A.D.N. also acknowledges the support of the NVIDIA Corporation with the donation of the GeForce Titan X and the Tesla K40 GPUs used for this research.

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A.D.N. conceptualized the experiment, developed the methodology and designed the baseline artificial neural network architecture. A.D.N. and J.L.M. collaborated on the design of the embodied model. A.D.N. implemented the source code, ran the simulations, validated the results and wrote the first draft of the article. J.L.M. provided relevant ideas from cognitive psychology and neuroscience and contributed to the discussion.

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Correspondence to Alessandro Di Nuovo.

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Di Nuovo, A., McClelland, J.L. Developing the knowledge of number digits in a child-like robot. Nat Mach Intell 1, 594–605 (2019).

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