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Alison Gopnik, pioneering campus professor, wins Rumelhart Prize

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AUGUST 02, 2023

On July 27, UC Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik was making a speech over Zoom to leading cognitive scientists from all over the world, accepting the Rumelhart Prize.

As she spoke, she brought what she called the “ideal recipient for the Rumelhart award” onscreen — a blue-eyed, smiling baby. She finished her speech by accepting the award on behalf of the young children and caregivers she worked with, all while the baby grinned and squirmed on camera.

For the past decade, Gopnik said she studied how young children and infants learn and analyze new information, which is what earned her the prize in the first place. Much of her research involved designing different games for young children and watching them play while analyzing their responses.

The award, known as the most prestigious award in cognitive science, is considered the field’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In addition to this prestige, the award comes with a check of $100,000, according to Adele Goldberg, former president of the Cognitive Science Society.

“It’s for the best person in cognitive science,” Goldberg said. “If you look at the list of awardees, these are superstars.”

Some of the past winners of the Rumelhart Award include Geoffrey Hinton, the “godfather of AI,” Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science and statistics at UCLA and Michael Jordan, a distinguished professor in the statistics and electrical engineering and computer sciences departments on campus, noted Bob Glushko, founder and funder of the award and adjunct professor in campus’s cognitive science department.

The award is named after David Rumelhart, a psychologist who made many contributions to studies on human cognition and artificial intelligence, Glushko said. He passed away in 2011 due to cognitive decline from Pick’s disease.

“We want to remember this guy as the father of neural networks, not as this poor guy that died early,” Glushko said. “(We) sort of changed the story.”

In her research, Gopnik found that young children have more cognitive abilities than previously thought.

She recently expanded her scope to the AI field by using her findings of young children’s learning processes to make neural networks more efficient, Glushko noted.

“We’ve shown in a whole lot of different contexts at different times that young children are really functioning a lot like scientists,” Gopnik said. “They do experiments, they analyze statistics, they draw causal inferences and they do all that very spontaneously just in their everyday life and thinking.”

Gopnik’s next project is to learn more about the psychology of caregiving and how taking care of someone is different compared to other social and cognitive capacities humans have.

Currently, Gopnik said she is excited about being chosen for the award and that her kind of work is receiving recognition.

“It’s not just a prize for doing something in your own particular field,” Gopnik said. “It’s a prize for bringing together interesting work across philosophy, psychology and computer science to solve the really deep, basic questions about human nature, which is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

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AUGUST 04, 2023