Carnegie Mellon University Home

H&SS News

John R. Anderson

May 2011

Q&A with John R. Anderson

John R. Anderson has re-defined the field of cognitive psychology by taking a theory of how we think and using it to improve the learning process for students across the globe.

A pioneer, Anderson recently joined the likes of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, the late CMU professor Allen Newell, known as the father of artificial intelligence, and CMU Professor Takeo Kanade as recipients of the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science.


Why did you choose to study psychology?
It’s what I was interested in. It’s what makes humans special. I started out with an interest in literature, thinking I was going to be a writer. But, I guess along the way as an undergraduate, I became convinced that science was the way to understand that particular question, so I chose cognitive psychology.

What was your reaction when you learned that you were going to receive the Benjamin Franklin award?
I was obviously very pleased. I was aware of some of the people who had won that particular award, including Allen Newell, Stuart Card, and Takeo Kanade, so I knew I was in very special company.

What is the Adaptive Control of Thought (ACT) theory?
We first developed a version of it in the 70s. It was an attempt to develop computer simulation of what we call the architecture of cognition, a system for modeling how the various components of the human intellectual apparatus get together and produce a coherent thought. It basically is a theory of the overall organization of human thought and cognition.

How did you start going in that direction?
In my graduate work I had worked on the fairly ambition theory of human memory, trying to account for a lot of the experimental literature. This was work I did with my graduate advisor Gordon Bower. I guess having left that work, I felt a little unsatisfied because it was a theory of what humans knew but not a theory of how they acted on what they knew. I spent my first few post-PhD years knocking around trying various ideas. I finally hit upon some of the work Allen Newell was doing at the time on production systems, and it seemed provide the bridging link between what we call ‘declarative knowledge,’ which was what my theory of memory was concerned with, and essentially how it gets acted on, which we’ve come to call ‘procedural knowledge.’

How were you able to take the ACT theory and apply it to real-world situations?
We’ve applied them to a good number of tasks. I guess a number of them could be called real world tasks. An important event in this whole process took place in the early 90s, where we produced the current version of the ACT Theory, which is called ACT-R. It was first widely available computer simulation of the ACT theory. A fair community of researchers developed it around that particular theory. A lot of things that have been done to apply ACT to the real world are things that I have very little to do with. Most of my research has been concerned with modeling how students learn mathematical skills, more specifically focused on algebra. There are models of how people drive cars, do all sorts of other tasks that other people have developed. Modeling in ACT_R can proceed in two ways. The less satisfying but more common way to do a task analysis -- look at what is involved in that task and ask yourself how the ACT-R architecture could deal with those particular demands. Then you essentially build by hand a model of how you think people do that particular task and then do experiments to verify and tune the model. We are getting more interested in having these models in essence build themselves, modeling how people learn through instruction and example and experience. That has probably been the big new push within the ACT-R community for the last five to ten years -- to have cognitive models built up by learning rather than being programmed in by the modeler.

How did you decide to focus on math and algebra?
Part of it was out of the work we did on intelligent tutoring systems, which was at the end of the 80s. That work was actually started as an attempt to break the current version of the ACT theory at that particular point in time. We had this theory that modeled how people saw a problem and to a certain degree how they learned to solve problems. It seemed to do a fine enough job as a descriptive model, but it seemed incredible that it could be an accurate description of what was actually going on in a human head. So we thought if we build instructional systems around what it said, certainly they wouldn’t work, and by seeing how they wouldn’t work we would learn how to improve the theory. We were surprised that it actually worked. We looked at a number of topics, but mainly we were looking at topics in high school math. So, I got very familiar with the domain of high school mathematics and all the issues about American competitiveness in mathematics.

Who are some of your mentors?
My graduate advisor was Gordon Bowers. He’s a researcher on human memory at Stanford University. He certainly had a large influence on my early development. I also learned a lot from Herb Simon and Allen Newell when I came to Carnegie Mellon in 1978. They had a big influence on me.

Allen Newell also won Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science. Could you talk a little about how his work affected your work?
First of all, he was the person who formulated the idea of using productive systems in cognitive models. Productive systems were formal ideas developed in logic that extended back to the 40s, They were really a little bit obscure and nobody before Newell really got the insight that they could actually provide the characterization of the way human cognition proceeds. The ideas about productions systems I got before I came to Carnegie Mellon. Perhaps the major reason I came to Carnegie Mellon was because that’s where work on production systems was being done. When I came to Carnegie Mellon, Newell was working very much on this idea of a cognitive architecture, which is a larger concept of the overarching structure of the cognitive system. That was the other major influence on me. It did a lot to help the ACT theory that I came there with grow to the current point that it’s at.

Where do you see the future of your work?
Neural Science is such a major driver now in research. I think it has a lot to offer people. The challenge is to describe how intellectual behavior can go forward and also go forward in a human way. Since the beginning of artificial intelligence we understood how intellectual things could happen, but the image that came out of artificial intelligence was very unhuman-like. So understanding how human intelligence is anchored in the brain is critical. I think that direction is very promising.

On the other hand, there are real limitations of what we can understand given current techniques in neural science like neural imaging and there is a real temptation to study just the things that that the techniques can shed light on. To some degree, that sheds light on relatively basic aspects of human cognition, which are not things that are uniquely human. So, I think the interesting issue is whether we can achieve the twin goals of developing a conception that is really up to the power of human intellect while at the same time understand how it is anchored in the brain. I see that as the challenge going forward, to achieve both rather than achieving just one.

Watch a video tribute to the legacy of John R. Anderson at http://youtu.be/rDLO5NsqbT4.

Read about Anderson's legacy.

Stay connected with Carnegie Mellon's College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Twitter and Facebook.

Other sources of Carnegie Mellon news include the university news service website and the Carnegie Mellon Today magazine.

Contact Shilo Raube, Director of Public Relations at sraube@andrew.cmu.edu or (412) 268-6094.

 

About the Quick Links

Follow the Dietrich College on Twitter and Facebook.
Sign up to receive Dietrich College News, the college's monthly e-newsletter.

  Four Dietrich College Graduates Receive Fulbright Awards
From addressing clean water shortages in urban Mexican communities to teaching English in Brazil, Germany, Montenegro and Turkey, five recent CMU graduates – four from the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences – will be making a global impact through this year’s Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Read more.
  Dietrich College News: July 2014
Features this month include new autism and health psychology research, what the World Cup and the Russian Revolution have in common, alumni stories, faculty accomplishments and much more. Read Dietrich College News.
  Autism Stems Mostly From Common Genes
Using new statistical tools, Kathryn Roeder has led an international team of researchers to discover that most of the genetic risk for autism comes from versions of genes that are common in the population rather than from rare variants or spontaneous glitches. Read more.
  International Impact of the Humanities
Sports fans may have had their eyes on Brazil as it hosts the 2014 World Cup, but beyond the soccer fields, the country is facing a different form of competition. Many of the issues are eerily similar to those raised in the 1917 Russian Revolution, putting historian Wendy Goldman's work in the spotlight. Read more.
  Only 25 Minutes of Mindfulness Meditation Alleviates Stress
Mindfulness meditation has become an increasingly popular way for people to improve their mental and physical health, yet most research supporting its benefits has focused on lengthy, weeks-long training programs. Read more.
  Save the Date: Celebrating the Work of Steven Klepper
The Dietrich College and Department of Social and Decision Sciences will hold an academic conference and community memorial event on October 17, 2014 to celebrate the work of Steven Klepper. Read more (pdf).
  Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning In Young Children
Published in Psychological Science, CMU's Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin and Howard Seltman looked at whether classroom displays affected children's ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn the lesson content. They found that children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed. Read more.   Watch a video.
  Four Students Begin Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program
The program provides summer funding to rising seniors in the Dietrich College's senior honors program as they undertake early-stage research and development of their thesis topics. In this video, the four students participating in program's inaugural year discuss their projects which range from relationship research to anthropology and ethnography studies. Watch the videoFind out more about the program.
  Mapping the Future of the Humanities and Social Sciences
Carnegie Mellon University — which has a long history of the humanities and social sciences collaborating with other fields to solve problems — and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences held the first Pittsburgh-area discussion of the "Heart of the Matter" report and its implications for improving education and creating a sustainable global society. Read more.   Watch the video.  View photos.
  New Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program Announced
The program will provide summer funding support to rising seniors in the Dietrich College senior honors program as they undertake early-stage research and development of their thesis topics. Read more.
  Richard Scheines Appointed Dean of Dietrich College
Scheines, professor and head of the Department of Philosophy, has been selected to lead the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences as dean, effective July 1, 2014. He will succeed John Lehoczky, who has served as dean since 2000 and will return to the Department of Statistics’ faculty. Read more.
  Students, Alumni Attend Under Construction
Nearly 60 alumni returned to support 150 current students and help them build their careers. The second annual “Under Construction: Building Your Future” event encouraged students and alumni to explore the diverse fields available after graduation. Read more.
  Video: The Humanities at Carnegie Mellon University
The Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences is proud to have distinguished faculty and talented students who are leading the humanities into the 21st century. In this short video, Dietrich College faculty, staff and alumni talk about the college’s excellence in the humanities. Watch the video.

 

H&SS Home | Admissions | Advising & Careers | Departments & Programs | Research | Computing & Libraries | News | Alumni

Site Index | About H&SS | Message from the Dean

 

Carnegie Mellon University
College of Humanities & Social Sciences | 5000 Forbes Avenue | Baker Hall 154 | Pittsburgh, PA 15213 | (412) 268-2830