Babies are such little copycats. They learn by watching other humans. This is how small, dependent people turn into larger, independent people.
The thing is, babies aren’t just imitators. By the time they’re around 18 months old, they’re pretty adept at figuring out what a person is trying to do—say, stack some blocks, or toss a ball into a toy bin—even if that person doesn’t succeed. In other words, they can infer intent, and even develop their own alternate strategies of achieving a goal.
“Humans are the most imitative creature on the planet and young kids seamlessly intertwine imitation and innovation,” said Andrew Meltzoff, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and a co-director of the school’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “They pick up essential skills, mannerisms, customs, and ways of being from watching others, and then combine these building blocks in novel ways to invent new solutions.”
Meltzoff recently worked with a team of roboticists and machine-learning experts to explore a strange and compelling question: What if robots could learn this way, too? A paper detailing their findings was published in the journal PLOS ONE last month.
“The secret sauce of babies is that they are born immature with a great gift to learn flexibly from observation and imitation. They see another person and register that the person is ‘Like Me.’ They devote great attention to the ‘Like Me’ entities in the world,” Meltzoff told me. “Roboticists have a lot to learn from babies.”