Reasoning with visual imagery: Research at the intersection of autism, AI, and visual thinking

Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Vanderbilt University

Maithilee Kunda,
Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Vanderbilt University

While decades of AI research on high-level reasoning have yielded many techniques for many tasks, we are still quite far from having artificial agents that can just “sit down" and perform tasks like intelligence tests without highly specialized algorithms or training regimes.  We also know relatively little about how and why different people approach reasoning tasks in different (often equally successful) ways, including in neurodivergent conditions such as autism. In this talk, I will discuss: 1) my lab's work on AI approaches for reasoning with visual imagery to solve intelligence tests, and what these findings suggest about visual cognition in autism; 2) how imagery-based agents might learn their domain knowledge and problem-solving strategies via search and experience, instead of these components being manually designed, including recent leaderboard results on the very difficult Abstraction & Reasoning Corpus (ARC) ARCathon challenge; and 3) how this research can help us understand cognitive strategy differences in people, with applications related to neurodiversity and employment.

Maithilee Kunda is an assistant professor of computer science at Vanderbilt University. Her work in AI, in the area of cognitive systems, looks at how visual thinking contributes to learning and intelligent behavior, with a focus on applications related to autism and neurodiversity. She directs Vanderbilt’s Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence and Visual Analogical Systems and is a founding investigator in Vanderbilt’s Frist Center for Autism & Innovation. She has published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (JADD), the premier journal for autism research, as well as in AI and cognitive science conferences such as ACS, CogSci, AAAI, ICDL-EPIROB, and DIAGRAMS, including a best paper award at the ACS conference in 2020.  Also in 2020, her research on innovative methods for cognitive assessment was featured on CBS 60 Minutes, as part of a segment on neurodiversity and the workforce, and in 2022, her work on a new educational computer game for middle school students on the autism spectrum was featured in the New York Times, in a piece on AI and special education. She holds a B.S. in mathematics with computer science from MIT and Ph.D. in computer science from Georgia Tech.