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Janie B. Cheaney: Learning from babies


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Learning from babies

The immense cognitive development during a child’s first two years astounds scientists

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, June 12th, 2024. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

WORLD Commentator Janie B. Cheaney now with a study that shows the limits of technology compared to God’s design.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: I’m addicted to baby videos on YouTube. I could do without the filters, voice-overs and goofy music—just give me those puffy cheeks and adult expressions imitated on little round faces. They’re so unbelievably cute we forget what’s going on in their rapid-fire brains.

I recently read about a study conducted at Stanford involving 25 babies, ages 6 months to 2 ½ years. This is probably the prime age for language learning: at the low end of that age range a baby is starting to connect objects with words, and by the end most toddlers are putting words together in complete sentences.

The study involved the BabyView camera, developed by the Center for Open Science. This is a light device with a small mic mounted on a soft helmet fitted to the baby’s head. Those who could tolerate this apparatus wore it for about two hours per week over a period of 2 years. Visual and audio inputs were recorded and algorithms applied. The purpose was to enter a baby’s world, as much as possible, to get some insight into how she learned her communication skills.

Also, how those natural techniques might be applied to machine learning. Large language models like OpenAI “learn” by exposure to hundreds of billions of words in context, but most babies need to hear a word only once or twice before they know it. They also seem to know how to apply it—how the word “tree,” for example, refers to the whole tree, not just a branch or a leaf.

The debate rages on about whether infant brains are pre-programmed for language learning or whether they arrive in the world with blank, but highly absorbent, minds. Researchers who study them agree on one thing. Brendan Lake, a cognitive scientist at New York University who studies his own daughter through a BabyView camera, puts it this way: “Children are the most impressive learners in the known universe.”

Every parent knows this if they pause to watch. I remember taking my daughter to the laundromat when she was about four months old. I had propped her in her car seat on the table while I was folding clothes, and suddenly I noticed her looking at her hands. Not looking—studying. Her eyes followed them as her fingers flexed and her fists waved, and it was as if I could see her making the connection: These are mine. I can do things with these. Soon she would be grasping and reaching. Soon she would be pointing and asking: What’s this? What’s that? Soon she would be using those hands to repair airplanes, and then changing her own babies’ diapers as they studied their hands.

Baby learning is both natural and miraculous. If you happen to be near a baby, take time to watch it happen, and praise the Lord for this wonderful work.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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