As we noted in an earlier chapter, there is an interesting parallel between the Infer abstraction, which separates model specification from inference method, and the idea of levels of analysis in cognitive science @Marr1982. For most of this book we are interested in the computational level of describing what people know about the world and what inferences that knowledge licenses. That is, we treat the model argument to infer as the scientific hypothesis, and the options (including ‘method’) argument as an engineering detail needed to derive predictions. We can make a great deal of progress with this abstraction.

The algorithmic level goes further, attempting to describe the process by which people draw these inferences – taking the options to Infer as part of the hypotheses. While Infer specifies an ideal, different methods for inference will approximate this ideal better or worse in different cases; they will also do so with different time, space, and energy trade-offs. Is it reasonable to interpret the inference algorithms that we borrow from statistics as psychological hypotheses at the algorithmic level? Which algorithm does the brain use for inference? Could it be MCMC? Enumeration?

If we take the algorithms for inference as psychological hypotheses, then the approximation and resource-usage characteristics of the algorithms will be the signature phenomena of interest.

How is uncertainty represented?

A signature of probabilistic (“Bayesian”) cognitive models is the central role of uncertainty. Generative models, our main notion of knowledge, capture uncertain causal processes. After making observations or assumptions, Infer captures uncertain answers. At the computational level we work with this uncertainty by manipulating distribution objects, without needing to explore (much) how they are created or represented. Yet cognitively there is a key algorithmic question: how is uncertainty represented in the human mind?

We have at least three very different possible answers to this question:

Explicit representations

The most straightforward interpretation of Bayesian models at the algorithmic level is that explicit probabilities for different states are computed and represented. (This is very much like the ‘enumerate’ method of Infer.) Attempts have been made to model how neural systems might capture these representations, via ideas such as probabilistic population codes. (See Bayesian inference with probabilistic population codes, Ma, Beck, Latham, Pouget (2006).)

Yet it is difficult to see how these explicit representations can scale up to real-world cognition.

Approximate distribution representations

Another possible representation of uncertainty is via the parameters of a family of distributions. For instance, the mean and covariance of a Gaussian is a flexible and popular (in statistics) way to approximate a complex distirbution. (Indeed, we have seen that a mean-field product of Gaussians can give quick and useful inference result from variational inference.) It is thus possible that all uncertainty is represented in the human mind as parameters of some family. A version of this idea can be seen in the free energy hypothesis. (See The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?, Friston (2010).)

The sampling hypothesis

Finally, it is possible that there is no explicit representation of uncertainty in the human mind. Instead uncertainty is implicitly represented in the tendencies of a dynamical system. This is the sampling hypothesis: that the human mind has the ability to generate samples from conditional distributions when needed. Thus the mind implicitly represents an entire distribution, but can only work explicitly with a few samples from it.

We have seen a number of methods for creating dynamical systems that can sample from any desired distribution (rejection sampling, various Markov chain Monte Carlo methods, etc). This type of representation is thus possible in principle. What behavioral or neural signatures would we expect if it were correct? And which of the many sampling methods might be neurally plausible?

As a first analysis we can assume that the human mind is always capable of drawing perfect samples from the conditional distributions of interest (e.g. via rejection sampling) but doing so is costly in terms of time or energy. If we assume that only a few samples are going to be used by any individual in answering any question, a profound behavioral prediction arises: individuals’ choice probability will match the posterior probability distribution. Note that this is a somewhat radical departure from a “fully Bayesian” agent. If we assume a choice is to be made, with 100$ reward for the correct answer and no reward for incorrect answers, a rational (that is utility-maximizing) agent that explicitly represents the answer distribution should always choose the most likely answer. Across a population of such agents we would see no variation in answers (assuming a priori identical beliefs). In contrast, an agent that has only a single sample from their answer distribution will choose this answer; across a population of such agents we would see answers distributed according to the answer distribution!

Let’s see this in practice in a simple example, here each person sees a coin of unknown probability flipped five times, coming up heads four of them. Each person is asked to bet on the next outcome:

var agentBelief = Infer({method:'rejection', samples: 1000},function(){
	var weight = uniform(0,1)
	observe(Binomial({p:weight, n:5}), 4)
	return flip(weight)

var maxAgent = function(){return agentBelief.score(true)>agentBelief.score(false)}
var sampleAgent = function(){sample(agentBelief)}

print("max agents decision distribution:")
print("sample agents decision distribution:")

The maximizing agent chooses the most likely outcome by examining the conditional probability they assign to outcomes – the result is all such agents choosing ‘true’. In contrast, a population of agents that each represents their belief with a single sample will choose ‘false’ about 30% of the time. This behavioral signature – probability matching – is in fact a very old and well studied psychological phenomenon. (See for instance, Individual Choice Behavior: A Theoretical Analysis, Luce (1959).)

Vul, Goodman, Griffiths, Tenenbaum (2014) further ask how many samples a rational agent should use, if they are costly. This analysis explores the trade off between expected reward increase from more precise probability estimates (more samples) with resource savings from less work (fewer samples). The, somewhat surprising, result is that for a wide range of cost and reward assumptions it is optimal to decide based on only one, or a few, samples.

Test your knowledge: Exercises

Reading & Discussion: Readings

Next chapter: 9. Learning as conditional inference