Christina M. Funke; Judy Borowski; Karolina Stosio; Wieland Brendel; Thomas S. A. Wallis; Matthias Bethge

Five points to check when comparing visual perception in humans and machines

publication date
March 2021
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With the rise of machines to human-level performance in complex recognition tasks, a growing amount of work is directed toward comparing information processing in humans and machines. These studies are an exciting chance to learn about one system by studying the other. Here, we propose ideas on how to design, conduct, and interpret experiments such that they adequately support the investigation of mechanisms when comparing human and machine perception. We demonstrate and apply these ideas through three case studies. The first case study shows how human bias can affect the interpretation of results and that several analytic tools can help to overcome this human reference point. In the second case study, we highlight the difference between necessary and sufficient mechanisms in visual reasoning tasks. Thereby, we show that contrary to previous suggestions, feedback mechanisms might not be necessary for the tasks in question. The third case study highlights the importance of aligning experimental conditions. We find that a previously observed difference in object recognition does not hold when adapting the experiment to make conditions more equitable between humans and machines. In presenting a checklist for comparative studies of visual reasoning in humans and machines, we hope to highlight how to overcome potential pitfalls in design and inference.


Comparing human and machine visual perception can be challenging. In this work, we presented a checklist on how to perform such comparison studies in a meaningful and robust way. For one, isolating a single mechanism requires us to minimize or exclude the effect of other differences between biological and artificial and to align experimental conditions for both systems. We further have to differentiate between necessary and sufficient mechanisms and to circumscribe in which tasks they are actually deployed. Finally, an overarching challenge in comparison studies between humans and machines is our strong internal human interpretation bias. 

Using three case studies, we illustrated the application of the checklist. The first case study on closed contour detection showed that human bias can impede the objective interpretation of results and that investigating which mechanisms could or could not be at work may require several analytic tools. The second case study highlighted the difficulty of drawing robust conclusions about mechanisms from experiments. While previous studies suggested that feedback mechanisms might be important for visual reasoning tasks, our experiments showed that they are not necessarily required. The third case study clarified that aligning experimental conditions for both systems is essential. When adapting the experimental settings, we found that, unlike the differences reported in a previous study, DNNs and humans indeed show similar behavior on an object recognition task. 

Our checklist complements other recent proposals about how to compare visual inference strategies between humans and machines (Buckner, 2019; Chollet, 2019; Ma & Peters, 2020; Geirhos et al., 2020) and helps to create more nuanced and robust insights into both systems.

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