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Natural and artificial intelligence

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.

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Module code
Study level
3 10 6
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See Am I ready?

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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.

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.


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.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
4 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


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.


Start End Fee
- - -

No current presentation - see Future availability

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

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later - OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your annual fees and spreads them out over up to a year, enabling you to pay your fees monthly and walk away with a qualification without any further debt. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in 10 OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

For more information about employer sponsorship speak to an adviser or request a call back.

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Gift vouchers

You can pay for part or all of your tuition fees with OU gift vouchers. Vouchers are currently available in the following denominations, £10, £20, £50 and £100. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. You may, for example wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or request a call back.

Note: Your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is based upon current details for  year 1 August 2014 to 31 July 2015.
This information was provided on 01/08/2014.

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.

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. Find out more about our services for disabled students.