From the Learning Habits of Bees to Covid-19’s Effect on Businesses: Recent Research by CEU Faculty

The fall yielded exciting research activity at CEU, with highlights since the start of the academic year summarized as follows. A study by Associate Professor Jozsef Fiser from CEU’s Department of Cognitive Science published in PNAS shows that bees share a capacity for automatic learning the complex statistical properties often experienced in natural environments. Previously this was thought to be a visual capacity only present in humans and higher-level species, and the discovery in bees with a miniature brain inspires further improvements in AI. The study also reports that bees and humans use fundamentally different computational methods for this kind of learning, which might be one of the key reasons why humans’ superior learning abilities emerged. For the first time, the international team of experts used an identical test to compare automatic learning in humans and bees. Professor Fiser said, "We were very surprised to see that, similar to humans, honeybees developed a complex internal representation of the statistics of their new visual experience, and they could use this information in subsequent tests. We were even more astonished to realize that bees and humans achieved this feat by different computational strategies. Bees never become automatically sensitive to the predictability of visual elements that is, to how much the appearance of one element predicted the appearance of another element. In contrast, humans use this information from early infancy. This is exiting because access to predictability among pieces of information has long been implicated as a key computational requirement for acquiring effectively any highly complex knowledge. Thus our study demonstrates both how far one can get with simple methods and tiny brains to solve difficult tasks, and at the same time, what is crucial for reaching the next level of learning abilities." For more, read here.

Further research from the Department of Cognitive Science include Postdoctoral Fellow Maayan Stavans' study in Child Development on how children perceive leadership and hierarchy, which can be significant in shaping parenting styles to result in better parent-child relationships. 

Additionally, in new research published in Nature Communications, cognitive scientist Nicolo Cesana Arlotti (John Hopkins University), CEU Associate Professor Agnes-Melinda Kovacs and Associate Research Fellow Erno Teglas have found that infants recruit logic to learn about the social world. For more, read here.

Professor Günther Knoblich and Distinguished Visiting Professor Dan Sperber published a study in The Royal Society’s Journal about how motor constraints influence cultural evolution of rhythm. "People transform what they heard in a very systematic, rather than random, way," said Professor Sperber. "We can predict how the rhythms will change." The scientists hypothesized, correctly, that over time the rhythms would diverge significantly from the original seed rhythm, and in a specific way for each configuration.

Professor Günther Knoblich and Associate Professor Natalie Sebanz published a research in Nature twice: in September on “Synchronicities that shape the perception of joint action,” and in October on “Making sense of human interaction benefits from communicative cues.”

Professor at CEU’s Department of Economics and Business Miklos Koren’s research, carried out with Research Fellow Rita Peto from The Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, “offers an example of how combining economic theory, traditional statistics, and newer data sources can help better understand the crisis resulting from the pandemic, and therefore help predict economic trends,” said Professor Koren. The research, published in PLoS ONE, looked at the US, where by May 2020, one in eight of the more than 110 million workers had lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19. Koren and Peto relied on large-sample survey data to detect the most vulnerable sectors where personal communication with customers was paramount. While the exposure of these sectors to the virus is well known, the research highlights the magnitude of the problem for workers. In addition, the authors relied on data supplied by business analytics firm SafeGraph to capture, in real time, the dramatic fall in in-person commercial transactions. In the most vulnerable sectors, the study estimates that businesses would need about 126% wage subsidy for each of their workers. For more, read here.

Professor Diana Urge-Vorsatz, director of CEU’s Centre for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy, was co-author of the study that states that technology and skills already exist to achieve net- or nearly-zero energy building in nearly every part of the world – including both developed and developing countries – at costs in the range of those of traditional projects. The study, published in Annual Reviews, is the result of collaboration between construction experts and leading international academics, including senior members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Already a market reality in many locations, net zero energy buildings and retrofits are pivotal pillars of a climate neutral economy. However – given that our building stock takes many decades to turn over or be fully retrofitted – if we’re to hit a zero-energy global building sector by mid-century this technology has to become the standard practice now,” says Professor Urge-Vorsatz. “Every single building, we build or retrofit that does not take full advantage of our net zero technology and know-how locks us into a warmer climate.” For more, read here.

Associate Professor Marton Karsai and Visiting Faculty Julia Koltai at the Department of Network and Data Science are part of the epidemiological modeling group of experts at the University of Szeged, providing the Hungarian government with analyses of the possible courses that the pandemic might take. In their study, they looked at the attitudes of Hungarians towards the pandemic in terms of their willingness to wear masks, keep social distancing and openness to vaccination. For more, see the Telex article in English.