Machines With an Opinion

Scientists have developed a structure-mapping engine (SME) model that could give computers the ability to reason more like humans and even make moral decisions. The SME is capable of analogical problem solving, including ways humans spontaneously use analogies to solve moral dilemmas.

"In terms of thinking like humans, analogies are where it's at," said Forbus, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. "Humans use relational statements fluidly to describe things, solve problems, indicate causality, and weigh moral dilemmas."

The new model builds on psychologist Dedre Gentner's structure-mapping theory of analogy and similarity, which has been used to explain and predict many psychological phenomena. The idea is that analogy and similarity involve comparisons between relational representations, which connect entities and ideas.

From Complex to Simple

Scientists are trying out a range of analogies, from the complex (electricity flows like water) to the simple (his new cell phone is very similar to his old phone). In the past iterations of the SME, researchers have not been able to scale it to the size of representations that people tend to use. This new one can handle the size and complexity of relational representations that are needed for visual reasoning, cracking textbook problems, and solving moral dilemmas, scientists say.

Apart from solving everyday moral dilemmas, the SME has also been used to learn to solve physics problems from the Advanced Placement test, with a program being trained and tested by the Educational Testing Service. It shows the model can be used for multiple visual problem-solving tasks.

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