When my son was two years old, one day I showed him the char­ac­ter E” on a piece of paper. The next day he would point to the dif­fer­ent Es in the street, includ­ing this huge upside-down E paint­ed on the foot­ball field.

I was amazed that he could learn and gen­er­al­ize from just one exam­ple. When my lit­tle daugh­ter saw this Picasso paint­ing, she screamed, Face!” right away, even those she had nev­er seen such a dis­tort­ed face before.

Of course, being my chil­dren they are nat­u­ral­ly real­ly smart, but how is that pos­si­ble? Computers today aren’t this intel­li­gent. Computers can only do things that they are trained for. For exam­ple, after the Boston Marathon bomb­ing, human FBI agents had the come in to watch hours of sur­veil­lance tape to iden­ti­fy the bombers. Computers can­not do that because they don’t even know who and what to look for.

We can train com­put­ers to learn to rec­og­nize objects by giv­ing them mil­lions of exam­ples with the cor­rect answers. A human baby, on the oth­er hand, learns to rec­og­nize many con­cepts and objects all by them­self sim­ply by inter­act­ing with a few exam­ples in the real world.

My research at Carnegie-Mellon involves look­ing inside the brain to study what is going on at the lev­els of indi­vid­ual brain cells and cir­cuits when the brain is see­ing and learn­ing to rec­og­nize objects. We want to use this knowl­edge to make com­put­ers see and learn like humans. 

For humans, see­ing is a cre­ative process. There is a dis­tinc­tion between what our eyes take in, which are frag­ments of the world, and what we per­ceive. We rely heav­i­ly on our expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge to make up the image that we see in our mind.

These pic­tures illus­trate what I mean. On the left you see a red translu­cent sur­face, but real­ly there’s no red sur­face. Only frag­ments of the black rings have been turned red. On the right you see a white tri­an­gle, but in real­i­ty it’s not there. It is an illusion.

What we see in our mind is our inter­pre­ta­tion of the world. The brain fills in a lot of miss­ing details to make up the most prob­a­ble men­tal image that can explain what comes into our eyes. We see with our imag­i­na­tion, and we cre­ate the image that we per­ceive in our mind. 

Creating this image in our brain involves the inter­ac­tions of many lev­els of brain cir­cuits in the visu­al cor­tex, the part of the brain that is respon­si­ble for pro­cess­ing visu­al information.

During per­cep­tion, infor­ma­tion flows up and down across the dif­fer­ent lev­els to inte­grate glob­al and local infor­ma­tion. We have observed that at the high lev­el, neu­rons can see the white tri­an­gle but only fuzzily. 

Neurons at the low­er lev­el can see more clear­ly, but ini­tial­ly they only see a frag­ment­ed view of the world. But after a brief moment, they start to rep­re­sent the white tri­an­gle as well. We believe that the brain cre­at­ed this image as a way to check whether its inter­pre­ta­tion of the world is correct.

This is the result of a com­put­er pro­gram we wrote based on the same prin­ci­ples. Given an image, the pro­gram has to inter­pret its 3D struc­tures. For each inter­pre­ta­tion, it can imag­ine what it expects to see. And if the imag­ined image match­es the input image, I explain the image, the pro­gram knows he got the right answer.

So the brain, when it is not inter­pret­ing and per­ceiv­ing the world using this process, it can use the same cir­cuit to imag­ine how an object might look like under dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. So in this way, it can actu­al­ly gen­er­ate a huge amount of big data based on a few exam­ples to train itself.

So our nat­ur­al impulse to day­dream, to imag­ine the future, and to do cre­ative things, and our innate need for artis­tic expres­sion and art-making, could actu­al­ly all be byprod­ucts of the same pro­gram and process run­ning con­stant­ly in the brain. So these activ­i­ties could be key to the devel­op­ment of our abil­i­ties to learn from a few exam­ples and to rec­og­nize objects that we have nev­er seen before. So we want to give this capac­i­ty of cre­ativ­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion to com­put­ers so that they can learn auto­mat­i­cal­ly like a baby.

As a part of this large-scale Apollo Project of the Brain” recent­ly launched, we at Carnegie-Mellon are study­ing actu­al neur­al cir­cuits that enable our visu­al sys­tems to see and imag­ine with imag­i­na­tion. And we want to put this to work in computers.

So we hope this work will not only help to us under­stand the brain bet­ter, but to make more flex­i­ble and intel­li­gent robots. And the ques­tion I want to leave with you is, can you imag­ine what machines can do if they had the pow­er of imag­i­na­tion? Thank you. 

Further Reference

Tai Sing Lee home page at Carnegie-Mellon University

2016 Annual Meeting of the New Champions at the World Economic Forum site