Learning physics from dynamical scenes


Humans acquire their most basic physical concepts early in development, but continue to enrich and expand their intuitive physics throughout life as they are exposed to more and varied dynamical environments. We introduce a hierarchical Bayesian framework to explain how people can learn physical theories across multiple timescales and levels of abstraction. In contrast to previous Bayesian models of theory acquisition, we work with more expressive probabilistic program representations suitable for learning the forces and properties that govern how objects interact in dynamic scenes unfolding over time. We compare our model and human learners on a challenging task of inferring novel physical laws in microworlds given short movies. People are generally able to perform this task and behave in line with model predictions. Yet they also make systematic errors suggestive of how a top-down Bayesian approach to learning might be complemented by a more bottom-up feature-based approximate inference scheme, to best explain theory learning at an algorithmic level.

Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society
Tomer Ullman
Primary Investigator

My research focuses on the structure and origin of knowledge, guided by perspectives and methods from cognitive science, cognitive development, and computational modeling. By combining these, I hope to better understand the form and development of the basic commonsense reasoning that guides our interaction with the world and the people in it.