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Cambridge ESRC DTP Interdisciplinary Studentship 2023: “Common Sense” and flexible learning in AI agents: Do current AI agents possess the “basic skills” necessary for them to enter workforce?

   Department of Psychology

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  Dr L Cheke  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The University of Cambridge ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership [DTP] is pleased to offer an interdisciplinary studentship available for admission in October 2023.

The studentship will be a one-year masters followed by three-year doctoral programme and will be co-supervised by Dr Lucy Cheke (Department of Psychology) and Dr Flavia Mancini (Department of Engineering).

DTP students will acquire a unique set of skills that will equip them for high-profile careers as leading social scientists, in academia or in other government, industrial, commercial and third sector organisations, either in the UK or elsewhere.

About the project

Policy and institutional frameworks for AI governance rely on up-to-date information about AI capabilities. It is now possible to train AIs to exceed human performance on numerous, individual tasks such as classifying images or analysing large datasets. However, these systems cannot act outside of the task they have been trained for and often fail under even minor deviations from their expected inputs (Shevlin et al., 2019). Basic cognitive skills such as object permanence are central to flexible function, acquired in human infanthood, but are a major challenge for AI (e.g. Voudouris et al., 2022) and their development would represent a step-change in potential applications. However, current AI benchmarks are neither sufficiently cognitively defined nor sufficiently general to measure performance in these skills.

This studentship will form part of a project taking a new approach to AI evaluation - inspired by cognitive science both in terms of concepts (which is already common across AI research) and in applying a conceptual and methodological framework that is comprehensive and robust. Jointly supervised by Dr Lucy Cheke (Cognition and Motivated Behaviour Lab, Psychology; Director of the kinds of Intelligence Program, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence), who has led research in developmental /comparative psychology and AI evaluation, and Dr Flavia Mancini (Computational and Biological Learning research group, Engineering), who leads an interdisciplinary research group in computational neuroscience and AI. The student will create and train novel artificial agents using techniques in Deep Reinforcement and Bayesian learning while in parallel developing a series of cognitive tasks within the Animal AI platform ( to assess the capabilities of these agents. They will benchmark this performance against that of children. Finally, together with both supervisors, they will learn how to computationally model behavioral data, using both Bayesian and RL approaches, to extract a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the “cognitive fingerprint” across different tasks, for both children and agents generated using different architectures.

The ideal student will have strong technical skills and be from a computational background, with a proven interest in cognitive science. They should have: (1) a computational background, with interest in computational neuroscience and machine learning; (2) demonstrable programming skills; (3) Evidence of interest or experience in cognitive science. Candidates need to have excellent written and oral communication skills, in English. During the MPhil year, the applicant will be supported in developing the practical and research skills that will be put into practice in the PhD, depending on the background and previous training.

Cambridge ESRC DTP studentships are open to all students who meet the required academic conditions. Applicants need to have (or be close to obtaining) a high 2:1, preferably a 1st class honours degree in engineering, computer science, computational or cognitive neuroscience, physics, mathematics, machine learning, medicine, Psychology or a related neuroscience field. As this project involves working with infants and very small children a full Disclosure Barring Service (DBS) check will be required.

An ESRC DTP studentship will cover Home rate fees and provide £17,668 p.a. in living costs (current rates). DTP students also receive a personal allowance for additional training costs, and can apply for further funding to pursue fieldwork, academic exchange, and collaboration with non-academic partner organisations.

What to do next

You can find out more about the Cambridge ESRC DTP at: and read about some of the opportunities that will be available to you.

You can find out more about the Department of Psychology at and the Faculty of Engineering at (see also the Computational and Biological Learning research group (CBL)). Please address any questions about this studentship to Dr Lucy Cheke at [Email Address Removed] or Dr Flavia Mancini at [Email Address Removed]. Applications for this studentship should be made to the Department of Psychology. The course code is BLPCM1 (Mphil in Biological Sciences/ Psychology).

The closing date for applications will be 4th January 2023.

With your application you will be required to submit (i) a draft research proposal outlining your suitability, why you are interested in pursuing a PhD in this area, your background and research interests, familiarity with the populations targeted by this research. (ii) your CV stating your citizenship and years of residence in the UK (iii) copies of your academic transcripts (iv) details of two academic referees.

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