Emulation (observational learning)

Emulation (observational learning)

In emulation learning, subjects learn about parts of their environment and use this to achieve their own goals. First coined by child psychologist David Wood (1988 [Wood, D. 1988. How children think and learn. London: Basil Blackwell.] ), in 1990 [Tomasello, M. 1990. Cultural transmission in the tool use and communicatory signaling of chimpanzees? In: "Language" and intelligence in monkeys and apes: Comparative developmental perspectives (Ed. by Parker, S. T. & Gibson, K. R.), pp. 274-311. New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.] “emulation” was taken up by Michael Tomasello to explain the findings of an earlier study (Tomasello et al., 1987 [Tomasello, M., Davis-Dasilva, M., Camak, L. & Bard, K. 1987. Observational learning of tool use by young chimpanzees. Human evolution, 2, 175-183.] ). The meaning of the term emulation has changed gradually since.

In the original version, emulation referred to observers understanding objects in their potential to help them achieve desired results. They gained this understanding by seeing demonstrators achieving these very results with these objects. The actions performed by the demonstrators however were not copied, so it was concluded that observers learn “from the demonstration, that the tool may be used to obtain the food” (Tomasello et al., 1987).

In 1996 [Tomasello, M. 1996. Do apes ape? In: Social learning in animals: The roots of culture (Ed. by Heyes, C. M. & Galef, B. G., Jr.), pp. 319-346. San Diego, CA, USA: Academic Press, Inc.] , Tomasello redefined the term: “The individual observing and learning some affordances of the behavior of another animal, and then using what it has learned in devising its own behavioral strategies, is what I have called emulation learning. […] an individual is not just attracted to the location of another but actually learns something about the environment as a result of its behavior”. An even later definition further clarifies: “In emulation learning learners see the movement of the objects involved and then come to some insight about its relevance to their own problems.” (Boesch & Tomasello, 1998 [Boesch, C. & Tomasello, M. 1998. Chimpanzee and human cultures. Current Anthropology, 39, 591-614.] ). Here animals learn some physics or causal relations of the environment. This does not necessarily involve a very complex understanding of abstract phenomena (as to what defines a “tool as a tool”).

Emulation comprises a large span of cognitive complexity, from minimal cognitive complexity to very complex levels (e.g. see Custance et al. (1999) [Custance, D. M., Whiten, A. & Fredman, T. 1999. Social learning of an artificial fruit task in capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 113, 13-23.] for a version they call “object movement reenactment”, with regard to the lower range of complexity). But trials to solve this problem within the associative learning account may be misleading. In any case emulation was invented as a “cognitivist’s alternative” (Tomasello, 1999), spanning learning about how things function and their “affordances” (Tomasello, 1999 [Tomasello, M. 1999. Emulation learning and cultural learning. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 21, 703-704.] ) put to the use of achieving ones own goals: “Emulation learning in tool-use tasks seems to require the perception and understanding of some causal relations among objects” (Call & Tomasello, 1995 [Call, J. & Tomasello, M. 1995. Use of social information in the problem solving of orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) and human children (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 109, 308-320.] ). This necessarily involves some “insight” - a cognitive domain. To further highlight this point Call & Carpenter wrote in 2001 [Call, J. & Carpenter, M. 2001. Three sources of information in social learning. In: Imitation in Animals and artifacts (Ed. by Dautenkahn, K.): MIT Press.] : “it would be a harder task to teach robots to emulate than it is already to teach them to imitate”.


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