A Comparative Evaluation of
Approximate Probabilistic Simulation and Deep Neural Networks
as Accounts of Human Physical Scene Understanding

The stimuli we used and the model we evaluated

Figure 1: The stimuli we used and the models (intuitive physics engines and convoluation neural nets) we evaluated


Humans demonstrate remarkable abilities to predict physical events in complex scenes. Two classes of models for physical scene understanding have recently been proposed: "Intuitive Physics Engines", or IPEs, which posit that people make predictions by running approximate probabilistic simulations in causal mental models similar in nature to video-game physics engines, and memory-based models, which make judgments based on analogies to stored experiences of previously encountered scenes and physical outcomes. Versions of the latter have recently been instantiated in convolutional neural network (CNN) architectures. Here we report four experiments that, to our knowledge, are the first rigorous comparisons of simulation-based and CNN-based models, where both approaches are concretely instantiated in algorithms that can run on raw image inputs and produce as outputs physical judgments such as whether a stack of blocks will fall. Both approaches can achieve super-human accuracy levels and can quantitatively predict human judgments to a similar degree, but only the simulation-based models generalize to novel situations in ways that people do, and are qualitatively consistent with systematic perceptual illusions and judgment asymmetries that people show.