Perceiving the arrow of time in autoregressive motion

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 32 (NeurIPS 2019)

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Kristof Meding, Dominik Janzing, Bernhard Schölkopf, Felix A. Wichmann


Understanding the principles of causal inference in the visual system has a long history at least since the seminal studies by Albert Michotte. Many cognitive and machine learning scientists believe that intelligent behavior requires agents to possess causal models of the world. Recent ML algorithms exploit the dependence structure of additive noise terms for inferring causal structures from observational data, e.g. to detect the direction of time series; the arrow of time. This raises the question whether the subtle asymmetries between the time directions can also be perceived by humans. Here we show that human observers can indeed discriminate forward and backward autoregressive motion with non-Gaussian additive independent noise, i.e. they appear sensitive to subtle asymmetries between the time directions. We employ a so-called frozen noise paradigm enabling us to compare human performance with four different algorithms on a trial-by-trial basis: A causal inference algorithm exploiting the dependence structure of additive noise terms, a neurally inspired network, a Bayesian ideal observer model as well as a simple heuristic. Our results suggest that all human observers use similar cues or strategies to solve the arrow of time motion discrimination task, but the human algorithm is significantly different from the three machine algorithms we compared it to. In fact, our simple heuristic appears most similar to our human observers.