UC Berkeley hopes kids can teach computers

UC Berkeley researchers are no longer asking what computers can do for children, but what children can do for computers.

Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has been observing children at the university’s Child Study Center with this purpose in mind and is challenging accepted theories of cognitive development.

Gopnik told The UC Berkeley project is aimed at figuring out what kind of “software” children’s brains are running on and how to apply it to modern technology:

“We think about their brains as wonderful computers — the most powerful computers we know about.”

The average computer can solve simple questions and tasks but struggles to decide what information is relevant when presented with too many variables. An example of this is the host of complaints levied against the Apple program Siri.

Jean Piaget, the founder of the theory of cognitive development, thought of children as egocentric and illogical. He believed children made things up because they couldn’t tell the difference between play and reality.

However, scientists are now pointing to problems with Piaget’s research and are now recognizing that even infants understand the difference between reality and make believe. Children also have strong grasp of cause and effect — potentially aided by a natural assumption that humans do things for a reason.

Tom Griffiths, director of UC Berkeley’s Computational Cognitive Science Lab, said children:

“…have less memory than computers and potentially fewer information-processing resources, so one of the things were interested in is how they do such a god job at solving those problems.”

According to Griffiths, it is hoped that computer scientists “can identify more efficient algorithms as a consequence of thinking about the constraints children are under.”

With a variety of fields interested in this research, a new UC Berkeley center at the Institute for Human Development has been created and will bring together developmental psychologists, computer scientists and philosophers under one roof.

Oh and Siri – “roof” is meant literally and metaphorically.