Our ability to understand a scene is central to how we interact with our environment and with each other. Classic research on visual scene perception has focused on how people "know what is where by looking", but this talk will explore people's ability to infer the "hows" and "whys" of their world, and in particular, how they form a physical understanding of a scene. From a glance we can know so much: not only what objects are where, but whether they are movable, fragile, slimy, or hot; whether they were made by hand, by machine, or by nature; whether they are broken and how they could be repaired; and so on. I posit that these common-sense physical intuitions are made possible by the brain's sophisticated capacity for constructing and manipulating a rich mental representation of a scene via a mechanism of approximate probabilistic simulation -- in short, a physics engine in the head. I will present a series of recent and ongoing studies that develop and test this computational model in a variety of prediction, inference, and planning tasks. Our model captures various aspects of people's experimental judgments, including the accuracy of their performance as well as several illusions and errors. These results help explain core aspects of human mental models that are instrumental to how we understand and act in our everyday world. They also open new directions for developing robotic and AI systems that can perceive, reason, and act the way people do.
Organizers: Michel Besserve