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Human spatiotemporal pattern learning as probabilistic program synthesis

Tracey Mills · Josh Tenenbaum · Samuel Cheyette

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #407


People are adept at learning a wide variety of structured patterns from small amounts of data, presenting a conundrum from the standpoint of the bias-variance tradeoff: what kinds of representations and algorithms support the joint flexibility and data-paucity of human learning? One possibility is that people "learn by programming": inducing probabilistic models to fit observed data. Here, we experimentally test human learning in the domain of structured 2-dimensional patterns, using a task in which participants repeatedly predicted where a dot would move based on its previous trajectory. We evaluate human performance against standard parametric and non-parametric time-series models, as well as two Bayesian program synthesis models whose hypotheses vary in their degree of structure: a compositional Gaussian Process model and a structured "Language of Thought" (LoT) model. We find that signatures of human pattern learning are best explained by the LoT model, supporting the idea that the flexibility and data-efficiency of human structure learning can be understood as probabilistic inference over an expressive space of programs.

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