Making Smarter Computers By Teaching Them To Learn Like Children

By studying how toddlers learn and adapt to the world around them, computer programmers are trying to create smarter computers—machines that think more like humans.

Rather than using computers to help children learn, one group of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, is far more interested in using children to help computers learn. It’s not the child-slavery proposition that it sounds like. In cognitive development labs at the university, psychologists are using puppets, flashing toys, lollipops, and a variety of other tools to determine how young children—some not even talking yet—make calculations in their head that help them understand the world around them. By studying how the kids’ fast-growing brains process information, the psychologists and their computer-scientist colleagues hope to create computers that think and react in more human-like ways.

While people constantly assess one another’s mental state and use it to inform how they interact with each other, computers aren’t yet able to evaluate a user’s mood. But imagine if your computer could interpret facial expressions and tone of voice so as to read your frustration level, or put two-and-two together to understand that you work more slowly before you’ve had your morning coffee. It would be a huge leap forward for artificial intelligence.

"We’re trying to understand what makes human beings such good learners. We learn language, causal relationships, and new concepts from small amounts of data," says Tom Griffiths, director the university’s computational cognitive science lab. "And children are particularly interesting because they’re doing the largest amounts of learning. In just a few years, a child is going to speak a language, understand causal relationships in the world around him and learn concepts, like TV and computers, that haven’t appeared anywhere in our evolutionary history."

The cognitive psychologists are testing infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to better understand how they figure out the world around them. One of the psychologists had toddlers watch her while she tasted different foods while making faces, then showed that the children were capable of empathy and could pick up on her preferences. Another one showed that even babies who can’t yet speak seem to be capable of calculating odds ratios. When the researcher showed them two jars of candy, with different proportions of black and pink lollipops in each, then removed one from each without showing them the color, the infants almost always crawled toward the hidden pop removed from the primarily pink jar.

Figuring out how kids’ developing brains make these calculations could lead to more intuitive computers that can interact more sensitively, intelligently, and responsively, in applications ranging from language learning, online tutoring and call-answering, to research labs in need of smarter processing power. "We have computer scientists, but we don’t have computers that are scientists. That kind of causal reasoning and discovery is still something humans can do that computers can’t," Griffiths says.

He and his colleagues in computer science and psychology are launching a new multidisciplinary center to consolidate their work on infant, toddler, and preschooler cognition and computer programming. "We want to understand how children learn and develop, in order to make better systems that allow machines to solve the kinds of problems that humans are still better at than computers."

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  • hopendreams

    Assuming that humans learn better than any other mammal or animal might be flawed. In Zen Buddhism for example, the more we learn the more restricted we become. The more we know the less open to learning new things we are. Why learn something (if you think) you already know it? It's that knowing that stops us from growing. The "desire" aspect of acquiring knowledge divides us. First, we want happiness. We desire it and then we pursue it but we can never obtain it because it is within us and not something to be pursued. Lifetimes are lost to this pursuit. So we are not only looking in the wrong places but because we have set out to find answers to happiness we tend to miss a wealth of other information we ignore because of our goal. You can substitute any other learning endeavor for happiness here. We are seeking to find answers when it is far more important to seek to find questions. It's a mistake to pattern learning on the human model. Start with instinct. What a living creature brings to the table at birth. That knowledge is pure and perhaps sets in place a formula for future learning. Is it possible a songbird is smarter than the average person? No answers. Just questions. 

  • Patrick Hudson

    It is better to have more number of Questions. And persistence will yield you answers may be not for what you are looking but, for something you may not have thought. Most of the scientists have found new things while they were inventing other things. I think they are looking in the right directions only. By analyzing the brain of a child they can replicate the way the robots can manipulate the world and understand the world.

  • Suleman Ali

    It would be better to provide a computer with the means to see what it needs to learn, rather than teach it what we think it should know.  That means allowing it to input huge amounts of information and analyse it in different ways (to make sense of it), and then evaluate it to see how it can be used to do what's needed.  If a computer is given the task of 'being nice' it needs to learns all the different things it can do to achieve niceness, as well as all the different things that do the opposite, and how to evaluate how well it's doing.  This requires us accepting how little we know about learning, and giving computers the required freedoms and capabilities to learn in the complex ways we do.  Our assumptions, and perhaps over-parenting, might be part of the problem.  We might be coming to an exciting phase in our relationships with our silicon friends, where we are going to give them such freedoms.  That might also teach us things about giving freedoms to our fellow carbon friends.

  • SSL information

    Computers is a very helpful tool in our daily lives and have a great role in making us more intelligent and smart. This is a great help for the people esp. to the children and student because in this way they can learn new things and gain a lot of knowledge. Thanks a lot for sharing.