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Relational Symmetry in the Baboon: towards symbols and language

Project description

Looking to baboons to learn about human language

Using symbols and language is basic in human cognition. They rely on the flexible capability to encode bidirectional learned relation. The evolutionary origin of the development of this very human skill is still unknown, as recent experiments on non-human primates failed to trace bidirectional stimulus relations following a unidirectional learning. However, most of the applied procedures used results that were measured by specific motor outputs, and biases were tracked. The EU-funded SymBa project will construct new experiments using an innovative behavioural high-throughput platform to study baboon learning procedures using robotics and engaging models of AI such as recurrent neural networks. The aim is to unfold the symmetry emergence processes to explain the fundaments of human cognition.


Language and the symbolic use of labels underpin human cognition. As these features imply back and forths between label and labelled object, they require relational symmetry: the capacity to reverse a learned relation A->B into B->A. In non-human animals, such flexible encoding of bidirectional relations has been difficult to obtain experimentally, mostly due to their failure to reverse stimulus relations. This apparent absence of symmetry suggests an evolutionary gap at the origin of human language. Yet, a number of procedural biases, inlcuding perceptual ones, may account for this failure to demonstrate symmetry. Moreover, all studies have relied on specific motor outputs to reveal symmetry, whereas symmetric relations may simply not be learned in such an explicit form. Using the baboon as model primate species, and a worldwide unique, automatized, high-throughput behavioral platform as experimental system, we will conduct new experiments to re-assess this question. We will implement relational learning procedures which correct for all biases identified in past experiments, and rely on implicit rather than explicit measurements to test for the emergence of symmetry. Furthermore, we will study the effects of symmetry on stimulus networks, to assess the baboons’ abilities for flexible relational encoding when more stimuli are involved. A crucial feature of natural intelligence such as relational symnetry ought to be also considered in Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, as their relational learning abilities are still limited. We will thus investigate the capacity of existing connectionnist models (e.g. Recurrent Neural Networks) to learn symmetrical associations of stimuli, and will explore new architectures able to implement symmetry. Both symmetry or its absence in baboons would inform about the fundaments of human cognition. Hence, far-reaching implications are expected from this project, which may open new avenues of research in both AI and psychology.


Net EU contribution
€ 184 707,84
75794 Paris

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Ile-de-France Ile-de-France Paris
Activity type
Research Organisations
Total cost
€ 184 707,84