Babies Can Understand When The Effort Might Be Worth The Reward Interview with:

Shari Liu Dept Psychology Harvard University Cambridge, MA 02138 

Shari Liu -image by Kris Brewer.

Shari Liu
Dept Psychology
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138 What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: Every day, we look out into the social world and see more than pixels changing across our retinas, or bodies moving in space. We see people brimming with desires, governed by their beliefs about the world and concerned about the costs of their actions and the potential rewards those actions may bring. Reasoning about these mental variables, while observing only people’s overt behaviors, is at the heart of commonsense psychology. Where does this knowledge come from?

Response: Past work in developmental psychology shows that infants understand that people act to achieve goals, and that their actions carry some cost. Our experiments extend this work to ask whether infants think about these two things–cost and reward–as interconnected variables, much like our earliest economic theories of decision making.

After seeing an agent attain two goals equally often at varying costs, infants expected the agent to prefer the goal it attained through costlier actions. These expectations held across three experiments that conveyed cost through different physical path features (height, width, and incline angle), suggesting that an abstract variable—such as “force,” “work,” or “effort”—supported infants’ inferences.

Our results show that ten-month-old infants, who are not yet capable of communicating with others about their actions or of performing many actions themselves, put cost and reward together to understand the actions and minds of other people. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: These results have two main takeaways.

First, the core of both naive psychology and utility theory may emerge early in human development. The ability to reason about people’s desires and efforts from their actions traces back to the first year of life.

Second, infants, like adults, understand the concrete, physical events that they observe in terms of abstract, interconnected variables. This may help to account for the most striking capacity observed in young children: their ability to learn and thrive in any of the multitude of rich and variable environments that humans create and inhabit. These early-emerging abilities may enable this intelligence. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: One challenge at the intersection of cognitive science and AI is to build machines that learn and think like people. Our findings suggest that if we want machines to learn rapidly and flexibly in the same way that humans do, we should consider building into these machines rudimentary, domain-specific knowledge that we see early on in human development, like an intuitive understanding of physics and psychology. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: First, I’d like to acknowledge colleagues who have paved the way for this work, in particular Julian Jara-Ettinger and Chris Baker. Second, I’d like to acknowledge our funding sources: the Center for Brains Minds and Machines (CBMM), funded by National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center award CCF-1231216, and by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant DGE-1144152. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Ten-month-old infants infer the value of goals from the costs of actions

Shari Liu Tomer D. UllmanJoshua B. Tenenbaum, Elizabeth S. Spelke
Science  24 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6366, pp. 1038-1041
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2132

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.







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