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Inspired by research into how infants learn, computer scientists have created a program that can learn simple physical rules about the behaviour of objects — and express surprise when they seem to violate those rules. The results were published on 11 July in Nature Human Behaviour1.

Developmental psychologists test how babies follow the motion of objects by tracking their gaze. When shown a video of, for example, a ball that suddenly disappears, the children express surprise, which researchers measure by how long they stare in a particular direction.

Luis Piloto, a computer scientist at Google-owned company DeepMind in London, and his collaborators wanted to develop a similar test for artificial intelligence (AI). The team trained a neural network — a type of software system that learns by spotting patterns in large amounts of data — with animated videos of simple objects such as cubes and balls.

The software model, named Physics Learning through Auto-encoding and Tracking Objects (PLATO), was fed the raw images from the videos, but also versions that highlighted each object in the scene. PLATO was designed to develop an internal representation of physical properties of the objects, such as their positions and velocities.

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