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Simulation as an Engine of Physical Scene Understanding

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Journal Article - Open Access

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge United States

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In a glance, we can perceive whether a stack of dishes will topple, a branch will support a childs weight, a grocery bag is poorly packed and liable to tear or crush its contents, or a tool is firmly attached to a table or free to be lifted. Such rapid physical inferences are central to how people interact with the world and with each other, yet their computational underpinnings are poorly understood. We propose a model based on an intuitive physics engine, a cognitive mechanism similar to computer engines that simulate rich physics in video games and graphics, but that uses approximate, probabilistic simulations to make robust and fast inferences in complex natural scenes where crucial information is unobserved. This single model fits data from five distinct psychophysical tasks, captures several illusions and biases, and explains core aspects of human mental models and common-sense reasoning that are instrumental to how humans understand their everyday world.

Subject Categories:

  • Psychology

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