Queen's University

Students win international contest, earn 10,000 Euros and appear in prestigious journal

Dan Cownden (left) and Tim Lillicrap won $10,000 Euros.

What started out as a fun game for two Queen’s University PhD students has turned into 10,000 Euros and the opportunity to have their names on a research paper published in the prestigious journal Science.

Math student Dan Cownden, 26, and neuroscience student Tim Lillicrap, 28, beat out more than 100 other teams from around the world to win a tournament-style computer simulation game designed to examine social learning – which is people learning new behaviors by observing and copying others, as opposed to trying to figure things out by themselves.

“This project has been one of the highlights of my whole graduate student experience,” says Mr. Cownden. “The money is nice but seeing your name in Science is better academically in the long run. That’s the prize really.”

The on-line tournament was designed by researchers from around the world – including UCLA, Stanford, Stockholm University and the University of Bologna (Italy). Social learning is widespread in nature and is central to the success of humanity, yet it remains unclear why copying is profitable and how to copy most effectively. To address these questions, the researchers organized the computer tournament in which entrants submitted strategies specifying how to use social learning and its asocial alternative (for example, trial-and-error learning) to acquire adaptive behavior in a complex environment.

Because they finished first, Mr. Cownden and Mr. Lillicrap received $10,000 and were allowed to contribute to the study, even though they are not experts in social learning.

The study results were surprising because organizers designed parts of the tournament – involving critters who have to make decisions about how to survive and thrive – to favour both strategies. Mr. Cownden and Mr. Lillicrap found that – in this game –copying was always better than innovation.

The Queen’s duo weren’t familiar with the social learning, which is a relatively new field of study, when they entered the tournament, but there are some overlapping areas such as evolutionary theory and optimization, which helped them design a tournament strategy.

One of the reasons Mr. Lillcrap entered the tournament because it offered a nice change of pace from the world of neuroscience.

“So much time in science is spent getting half answers to complicated questions, which often take decades to appreciate fully. The tournament was done in a few months and it was an opportunity to work on something with a hard and fast goal and answer: out-design competing players and win,” Mr. Lilicrap says.

The study is now published in the current issue of Science.  

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Last updated at 2:22 pm EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
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