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Learning high-level visual representations from a child’s perspective without strong inductive biases

A preprint version of the article is available at arXiv.


Young children develop sophisticated internal models of the world based on their visual experience. Can such models be learned from a child’s visual experience without strong inductive biases? To investigate this, we train state-of-the-art neural networks on a realistic proxy of a child’s visual experience without any explicit supervision or domain-specific inductive biases. Specifically, we train both embedding models and generative models on 200 hours of headcam video from a single child collected over two years and comprehensively evaluate their performance in downstream tasks using various reference models as yardsticks. On average, the best embedding models perform at a respectable 70% of a high-performance ImageNet-trained model, despite substantial differences in training data. They also learn broad semantic categories and object localization capabilities without explicit supervision, but they are less object-centric than models trained on all of ImageNet. Generative models trained with the same data successfully extrapolate simple properties of partially masked objects, like their rough outline, texture, colour or orientation, but struggle with finer object details. We replicate our experiments with two other children and find remarkably consistent results. Broadly useful high-level visual representations are thus robustly learnable from a sample of a child’s visual experience without strong inductive biases.

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Fig. 1: Schematic overview of the experiments.
Fig. 2: Quantitative evaluation of the embedding models.
Fig. 3: Qualitative evaluation of the embedding models.
Fig. 4: t-distributed stochastic neighbor embeddings of the ImageNet classes.
Fig. 5: Nearest neighbours in the embedding space.
Fig. 6: Qualitative evaluation of the generative models.

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Data availability

Except for SAYCam, all data used in this study are publicly available. Instructions for accessing the public datasets are detailed in Methods. The SAYCam dataset can be accessed by authorized users with an institutional affiliation from the following Databrary repository: The ‘Labeled S’ evaluation dataset, which is a subset of SAYCam, is also available from the same repository under the session name ‘Labeled S’.

Code availability

All of our pretrained models (over 70 different models), as well as a variety of tools to use and analyse them, are available from the following public repository: (ref. 63). The repository also contains further examples of (1) attention and class activation maps, (2) t-SNE visualizations of embeddings, (3) nearest neighbour retrievals from the embedding models and (4) unconditional and conditional samples from the generative models. The code used for training and evaluating all the models is also publicly available from the same repository.


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We thank W. K. Vong, A. Tartaglini and M. Ren for helpful discussions and comments on an earlier version of this paper. This work was supported by the DARPA Machine Common Sense program (B.M.L.) and NSF Award 1922658 NRT-HDR: FUTURE Foundations, Translation and Responsibility for Data Science (B.M.L.).

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A.E.O. and B.M.L. conceptualized and designed the study. A.E.O. implemented the experiments. A.E.O. analysed the results with feedback from B.M.L. A.E.O. wrote the first draft. B.M.L. reviewed and edited the paper.

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Correspondence to A. Emin Orhan.

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Nature Machine Intelligence thanks Rhodri Cusack, Masataka Sawayama and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Orhan, A.E., Lake, B.M. Learning high-level visual representations from a child’s perspective without strong inductive biases. Nat Mach Intell 6, 271–283 (2024).

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