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by Yasmin Anwar
People often wonder if computers make children smarter. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are asking the reverse question: Can children make computers smarter?
The answer appears to be ‘yes.’
Researchers are tapping the cognitive smarts of babies, toddlers and preschoolers to program computers to think more like humans. If replicated in machines, the computational models based on baby brainpower could give a major boost to artificial intelligence, which historically has had difficulty handling human nuances and uncertainty.
“Children are the greatest learning machines in the universe. Imagine if computers could learn as much and as quickly as they do,” says Alison Gopnik a renowned developmental psychologist and author of The Scientist in the Crib (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2000) and The Philosophical Baby (Picador, 2010).
In a wide range of experiments involving lollipops, flashing and spinning toys, and music makers, Berkeley researchers are finding that children – at younger and younger ages – are testing hypotheses, detecting statistical patterns and drawing conclusions while constantly adapting to changes.
“Young children are capable of solving problems that still pose a challenge for computers, such as learning languages and figuring out causal relationships,” says Tom Griffiths, director of Berkeley’s Computational Cognitive Science Lab. “We are hoping to make computers smarter by making them a little more like children.”
For example, computers programmed with kids’ cognitive smarts could interact more intelligently and responsively with humans in applications such as computer tutoring programs and phone-answering robots.
And that’s not all. “Your computer could be able to discover causal relationships, ranging from simple cases such as recognizing that you work more slowly when you haven't had coffee, to complex ones such as identifying which genes cause greater susceptibility to diseases,” says Griffiths.
The healthy newborn brain contains a lifetime’s supply of some 100 billion neurons, which grow a vast network of synapses or neural connections – about 15,000 by age 2 or 3 – that enable children to learn languages, become socialized and figure out how to survive and thrive in their environment.
Adults, meanwhile, stop using their powers of imagination and hypothetical reasoning as they focus on what is most relevant to their goals, Gopnik says. The combination of goal-minded adults and open-minded children is ideal for teaching computers new tricks.
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