Research Overview

Our lab is interested in understanding the everyday forms of intelligence that make humans so smart. Despite recent advances, human intelligence still vastly out performs the abilities of our most intelligent machines such as robots, driverless cars, and virtual assistants. We want to understand why that gap exists and how to narrow it. However, what does it mean to "understand" something like intelligence?
We think the best standard for understanding is building a system with this property -- to engineer it -- while also respecting core explanatory principles. Thus, our lab aims to understand biological intelligence (e.g., humans, animals) by building model systems that exhibit the types of agile intelligence we possess. Fundamentally human intelligence is about manipulating information in our minds. One compelling way to reverse-engineer intelligence is to build computer models or simulations that try to match the behaviors of humans.
This is why our lab is called "Computation and Cognition Lab." We try to reverse engineer the computational processes and representations that underlie human cognition and intelligence.
This field (computational cognitive science) is exciting and requires a particular type of scientist. It often appeals to those who like to synthesize ideas from many different areas of science (e.g., psychology, machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer science, mathematics, philosophy, and neuroscience).
In our actual research projects, we try to unpack these bigger questions into manageable pieces. A typical research strategy focuses on a particular behavior that we can characterize well with human behavioral experiments (e.g., how people learn and make decisions or how they ask questions). We then try to build a computer model that recreates that ability. We frequently focus on human behaviors that are challenging for current machine learning systems because this is where the real action is -- how can we extend computational approaches to intelligence to encompass these abilities as well?

1. Self-directed/Active Learning

Unlike today's machine learning systems, children are remarkable in their ability to bootstrap knowledge from independent, self-guided interactions with the world. They ask questions, curiously explore new toys, and push at the boundaries of what they currently know on their own, often without a teacher or parent.
Our lab has been interested in understanding the nature of this human ability in computational terms. How can we figure out how something works by tinkering with it? How do we formulate and ask creative questions that reveal helpful information about abstract concepts? How do we judge what actions we can take to obtain helpful information? How do our choices to gather information affect our learning and memory? How do we creatively propose new tasks for ourselves and learn from those to extend our abilities? Moreover, how do these abilities develop across the human lifespan?
Our lab is often inspired by research in machine learning which seeks to develop machines with intrinsic abilities and desires to learn. For example, the field of active machine learning studies learning algorithms that learn by choosing which examples are likely to be informative. Similarly, the field of intrinsic motivation examines how to give machines the capacity for exploration and discovery.
Imagine a computer that could program itself, building competencies as it gave itself new challenges. This is precisely the adaptive and life-long learning abilities that young children have! Our hope is that by studying how children and adults accomplish this, we can one day realize this vision.
Representative papers:

2. Mental Representations as Symbolic Programs

There have been many proposals about the nature of human mental representations—for example, vector spaces, neural networks, abstract structures like graphs, and trees. One somewhat underexplored idea is that some parts of our mental representations use bits of programs just like one might write code in Python or Javascript. The idea behind this hypothesis is quite old, going back to the earliest days of the fields of AI and cognitive science (often called Symbolic AI or "Good Old Fashioned AI"). However, there has recently been a bit of a revival of interest in this idea.
So what can we do with programs? One exciting task, prevalent in AI/ML, is program induction. In program induction, an agent (computer or person) sees either the output of a computer program or input-output pairs showing and tries to infer what the underlying program is. This seems like a challenging game to play, but something similar likely underlies many of our everyday inferences. For example, we infer how other people will respond to us primarily based on input-output pairs without access to the underlying behavior program the other person uses. Instead, we infer how other people think and act based on behavior. Another example is that we rarely completely understand technological artifacts, like our cars. However, we understand, based on input (pressing on gas or brake) and output (speed of the car), some underlying rules that govern driving.
For the last several years, we've been interested in how we can use this concept to understand various aspects of human behavior. For example, in Rothe, Lake, & Gureckis (2017), we used program-like representations to model how people ask informative questions while learning. In Bramley et al. (2018) we explored how people explore hypothesis spaces composed of program-like structures. More recently we've been focused on studying human behavior in program induction tasks like the one described above. Finally, some recent work has used program-like representations to represent goals and how people propose and design games (see the section on "Human RL").
Representative papers:

3. Intuitive Physical Reasoning

Humans have a remarkable ability for commonsense reasoning about the physical world. We can judge when a cup left precariously on the edge of the sink may fall in, when it is safe to cross the street, and how to play games with balls, discs, and other toys. Each of these abilities requires predictive and inferential processes related to how aspects of the physical world unfold -- how objects move or do not move and otherwise interact.
The goal of our research in this area is to understand better the representations and processes that the mind uses to reason about physics. People are unlikely to directly compute the relevant physical laws (things that took centuries of human ingenuity to identify and write down). Instead, we have some innate mechanisms for processing objects and their motions. What are these mechanisms?
One helpful approach when addressing these questions is to attempt to identify constraints on the system. Does it make mistakes concerning the ground truth of the physical world? If so, these mistakes might help us understand the unique architecture of human physical reasoning. In collaboration with Ernest Davis, a computer scientist at NYU, we have written a few papers exploring the limits of people's intuitive physical reasoning. One exciting result is that we found a new type of conjunction fallacy reasoning for simple physical situations (Ludwin-Peery, Bramley, Davis, & Gureckis, 2020)!
Our approach has led to an "adversarial collaboration" with with Kevin Smith and Josh Tenenbaum, evaluating the limits and advantages of different approaches to modeling intuitive physics. Several projects flow from there, including how people infer from the motion of some objects the existence of other occluded objects, and how people "experiment" with the physical world to uncover latent properties of objects.
Representative papers:

4. Human Reinforcement Learning

Reinforcement learning is a subfield of AI concerned with how agents can learn to make good decisions based on evaluative feedback (i.e., scalar rewards). There is a rich literature on both the cognitive and neural basis of RL in humans. In our lab, we have studied human decision-making from the perspective of RL for several years now. This includes how people learn representations of their world to enable effective RL, how people reason and plan (particularly in social settings), and how people can become "trapped" when learning to avoid negative outcomes.
Looking forward, there are several future directions. It has long been recognized that people learn more efficiently than most RL algorithms (e.g., recent deep reinforcement learning algorithms have to play games millions of times in order to match the performance of a human that plays only a handful of games). Understanding how human learning is more efficient is thus an exciting topic with direct application to computer science/AI. However, there are other interesting differences between human and machine RL as well.
For example, we have explored the interaction between language and reinforcement learning. RL primarily studies how we learn what actions to take in different situations. However, we also receive instructions to perform tasks or hints on how to do things in the form of language. Translating between language representations and action policies that can be further adjusted or influence RL is a currently understudied topic.
As another example, the external world does not always provide obvious rewards to us (e.g., when children engage in unstructured play). We are interested in how people generate goals that they then can solve and how these goal representations might be more efficient and natural than specifying reward functions.
Finally, we are interested in cases where both machine RL and humans get "stuck" when learning, adopting stable suboptimal behavior patterns. We call these examples "learning traps," and they specifically arise in situations where humans learn from positive and negative feedback and have to generalize knowledge from one experience to the next. Understanding why we get "stuck" may help us understand how to get people "unstuck," an application with practical societal relevance, including reducing the formation of negative stereotypes.
Representative papers:

Sample Projects

Phew! That was a lot. Still want more info? To give you a better sense of some of the basic scientific questions we are interested in, read these high level introductions to some of our recent projects:


The following set of keywords has been applied to our past papers. Click one to see a selection of papers on this topic.

Getting involved

Chances are if you are reading this you are interested in joining the lab or getting involved in our research efforts. We've put together a handy guide with information about how to get involved.