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IU awards up to $3 million to advance new approach to study of learning

Jan. 11, 2017

Can machines learn to think like children? An interdisciplinary team of cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and computer scientists at IU Bloomington has received the campus’s inaugural Emerging Areas of Research funding award to explore that question.

emerging areas of research

Linda Smith | PHOTO BY INDIANA UNIVERSITY

Called “Learning: Brains, Machines and Children,” the first Emerging Areas of Research initiative is led by Linda Smith, Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor of psychological and brain sciences in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. The research team will receive up to $3 million for the four-year project.

The Emerging Areas of Research program was proposed in the Bicentennial Strategic Plan for IU Bloomington as part of a suite of initiatives designed to invest in research innovation and excellence on campus.

"The Emerging Areas of Research funding program ensures that our campus is constantly thinking about the next frontier in knowledge and hiring new faculty to ensure we can reach that frontier," IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel said. "The stellar team led by Professor Smith epitomizes the strengths that allow us to build toward that future."

Representing expertise in developmental psychology, human learning, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, the inaugural Emerging Areas of Research team will pursue a comprehensive and unified theory of learning rooted in research about how infants and children learn to classify faces, objects, letters, numbers, etc.

"We are thrilled that IU Bloomington's first Emerging Areas of Research initiative represents such a profound area of focus and such an impressive group of researchers," said Rick Van Kooten, the vice provost for research at IU Bloomington, whose office oversees the Emerging Areas of Research program. "The proposal leverages exemplary areas of research on our campus, and the combination is certain to yield exciting results."

The significance of the research initiative lies in its convergence of the study of learning in human children and the study of machine learning. Child learning and artificial intelligence may seem to have nothing to do with one another, but that is a "fundamental misunderstanding," according to Smith.

"From its beginnings, computer science has always had overlapping questions with cognitive psychology and neuroscience," she said. "There's an emerging consensus that big breakthroughs will emerge through reunifying these sciences. Right now, we are at a tipping point for really big advances that will have major impacts on all aspects of human life."

For example, because the research project emphasizes visual learning, findings from the project may impact imaging and pattern recognition in fields from medicine to the military.

Smith is internationally known for her pioneering research and theoretical work on the development of human cognition, particularly among infants and toddlers. "Human infants and children are the best learning devices on Earth," she said. The IU Bloomington Emerging Areas of Research team is unique, Smith added, because it is "bringing a specifically developmental perspective to the question" of learning.

Other IU Bloomington members of the team are Robert Goldstone, Karin James, Michael Jones, David Landy, Franco Pestilli, Olaf Sporns and Chen Yu, all of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, and David Crandall, Sriraam Natarajan, Michael Ryoo and Martha White, all of the IU School of Informatics and Computing.

"The College is delighted to be able to contribute such an impressive range of scientific expertise, represented by the talented team from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences," said Larry Singell, executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "This initiative speaks to our strengths, both in the range of knowledge available in the College and in the collaborative spirit that the liberal arts can apply to a single question."

The Emerging Areas of Research program, launched in 2016, aims to support areas of research and creative strength on the IU Bloomington campus that will enhance the quality, impact and reputation of the campus's research enterprise. Over the next five years, the campus anticipates funding up to six Emerging Areas of Research initiatives, each with up to a $3 million cash investment and up to three new faculty hires per initiative. The "Learning: Brains, Machines, and Children" team plans to add three new faculty with expertise in the connections between computational cognition, computational neuroscience and machine learning.

"This initiative is the perfect blend of traditional science with computing," said Raj Acharya, dean of the IU School of Informatics and Computing. "Our faculty are excited to play an important role in this work using the power of computing and machine learning to help us understand the process by which infants and children learn during their earliest stages."

The inaugural award aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including celebrating a vibrant community of scholars and catalyzing research.    

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