Research Training Group in Computational Cognition

The Research Training Group in Computational Cognition pursues the re-integration of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Students in the program will be trained in both fields and will combine insights from both fields to understand intelligence in humans and machines. We have identified two areas of research where this re-integration will be particularly fruitful.

First, there is a schism between low- and high-level cognition. We understand a lot about the neural signals underlying basic sensorimotor processes, and we know a fair bit about the cognitive processes involved in reasoning, problem solving, or language. However, explaining how high-level cognition can arise from lowlevel mechanisms is a long-standing open problem in cognitive science. Machine learning has recently made great progress on deep learning methods and recurrent neural networks. At the same time, cognitive scientists have explored similar ideas, such as predictive coding for unified neural theories of learning. PhD projects in the first cluster will tackle problems, such as grammar learning, structured representations, or the production of complex behaviors with neural modeling. Thus, integrating ideas from cognitive science and AI will allow us to finally bridge the gap between low- and high-level cognition.

Second, human intelligence deals with highly structured, yet incomplete knowledge. Thus, the underlying representations and processes are able to generate new concepts and to take into account uncertainty. Along these lines, analogical reasoning, language, pragmatic inference and concept formation have been proposed as being the key to understand human intelligence. PhD projects in the second cluster will tackle exemplary problems of these domains that are easy for humans, but still hard for AI. They include analogical reasoning, concept invention, and pragmatic inferences. For each of these cognitive processes, there are reliable data and insights from cognitive science that will allow us to model these processes. This is a large advantage compared to the early days of AI where little was known about human cognition. The new Research Training Group will be integrated into the Cognitive Science PhD program that was established in 2002. Students in the Research Training Group will benefit from a highly interdisciplinary environment that is, nevertheless, focused on a common theme and that provides many methodological synergies between projects.

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Research Program


We propose to organize the Research Training Group in two related clusters:

  1. From Signals to Symbols and Back: Neural Representations and Learning
  2. Symbolic Thought: Processes on Uncertain and Incomplete Representations

The first cluster addresses the important problem of bridging low- and high-level aspects of cognition. In particular, we address the question of how symbolic representations can be implemented and learned in neurally plausible architectures. This is, of course, an old question, but recent theoretical and practical advances in deep learning and recurrent neural networks warrant a fresh look at the problem. In addition, there is growing experimental work on oscillations and predictive coding in the brain that casts new light on the principles of neural computation.

The second cluster is complementary to the first and focuses on high-level cognitive processes, like analogical reasoning and language understanding. These processes are best conceptualized as symbolic thought, and hence most easily modeled as symbol systems. However, it is crucial that these systems need to be able to deal with uncertainty and incomplete knowledge. We seek to identify some of the missing ingredients for human-level intelligence by studying how symbolic thought in humans deals with the problems of uncertainty and knowledge induction in some well-understood domains of cognition.

A common theme for several of the envisioned dissertation projects in both clusters is their work on bridging the gap between low- and high-level cognition, but from different directions and either with an emphasis on the signal side or the symbol side. In addition, cross-cutting the two clusters, there are many methodological synergies between possible projects. We expect several PhD students to work with neural networks and several with logics. Machine learning tools will be used routinely by many of the students. On the experimental side, psychophysics, eye-tracking and EEG will be common methods in many projects. Hence, the Research Training Group will provide an inspiring environment in respect to topics and methodologies.

Projects Overview

First Cluster

  • Deep recurrent neural networks for action models
  • Self-organized grammar learning with a plastic recurrent network
  • Hierarchically structured object representations
  • Human categorization strategies for Computer Vision
  • From point clouds to symbols in mobile robotics
  • Semisupervised Conceptors and conceptor logic
  • Constrained semi-supervised learning
  • Relationship extraction using NLP and image content

Second Cluster

  • Concept invention
  • Co-development of analogical reasoning in language and cognition
  • Robots focusing on relevant knowledge
  • Attention from abduction
  • Action oriented scene understanding
  • Probabilistic models of conditionals
  • The semantics, pragmatics and acquisition of polarity items


Compatibility of family and work: Osnabrück University has been repeatedly certified as a family-friendly university (Hertie-Stiftung) and offers Dual Career Services. The University offers places in several day-care facilities, offers emergency childcare, advice regarding care facilities and helps to find childminders. Thus, the Osnabrück University already implements an environment with strong support structures for families (e.g. individualized counseling, support for finding child care, and mediation in conflicts).
We will build on this for this RTG and extend the support by several measures as follows.

Equal Opportunity representatives: Within the RTG, we plan to implement two Equal Opportunity representatives, one at the level of PIs and one on the level of PhDs. The Equal Opportunity representatives are part of the selection committee and advise the Steering Committee. At least one of the Equal Opportunity representatives shall be female. The representatives can rely on support of the gender equality office of Osnabrück University.

Mentoring programs: For female doctoral students and Postdocs, Osnabrück University offers mentoring programs, where candidates have the chance to choose a personal mentor who is not a member of the RTG. This “Mentoring for Young Female Scholars” program is integrated into the PhD Career Center. One function of the mentoring programs is to enable additional interaction with (female) seniors who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge about structures and processes in academia through personal communication. Female members of the RTG are actively encouraged to participate in the program. The RTG will forward e-mails and flyers about the program to female doctoral students.

Female guest lecturers and fellows: To foster networks among female researchers, female colleagues from facilities will be invited to hold talks, and not only to present their research, but also to present their professional career development up to their professorial appointment. These may include Ladam Shams (UCLA), Uta Noppeney (Birmingham), Angela Schwering (Münster), Kerstin Preuschoff (Geneva), Janneke Jehee (Donders), Rebecca Lawson (UCL), Joni Dambre (U. Gent), Fiona Newell (Trinity Col.), Joelle Pineau (McGill), Amy Zhang (Facebook) or Jane Wang (Google). Our female doctoral students are requested and encouraged to attend events especially designed for women, e. g. the events from Women in Cognitive Science and Women in Neuroscience, by the American SFN and the European FENS Society. After the PhD, and during the postdoc time, we will adapt this support to help highly skilled women to advance their scientific career and stay in science on the faculty level.

Financial and practical support for childcare: The Osnabrück University arranged childcare for children of PhD students and staff members and has been certified as “Familiengerechte Hochschule”. This includes for example an established cooperation with the “Kath. Familienbildungsstätte” that offers special program for childcare during school holidays. To go beyond this, the RTG will provide researchers with childcare for infants and school children, even outside usual hours of care centers and schools (for instance during school vacation). Further this will cover the need for supervision during internal events or due to participation in conferences, summer schools etc. At external conferences, childcare will be financed (hometown or conference venue). Alternatively, a person responsible for childcare may accompany the researcher.

Additionally, all members of the RTG have access to the “Gleichstellungsbüro” of Osnabrück University and the multitude of measures they offer. These include for example information, mentoring, counseling in legal matters and support in childcare.

These suggested initiatives will be financed by the proposed budget of 15.000 Euro, which is dedicated to equal opportunity measures. How this funding will be used will be decided by the two Equal Opportunity representatives and the Steering Committee on the basis of applications of the members of the RTG. The representatives can rely on support of the gender equality office of Osnabrück University in this respect.

Recruiting: It is an important goal of the RTG to recruit highly qualified women. To foster applications of women, we will highlight especially attractive components of the group, i.e. team supervision by two professors, high-level of gender equality at Osnabrück University, as well as high flexibility (e.g. in respect to work times). Furthermore, the advertisements for positions will contain specific information concerning the Training Group’s decisive effort to recruit equally qualified women preferentially. Additionally we will do active recruiting, which includes active search of qualified women in the respective communities.