Passive learning of active causal strategies in agents and language models

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Andrew Lampinen, Stephanie Chan, Ishita Dasgupta, Andrew Nam, Jane Wang


What can be learned about causality and experimentation from passive data? This question is salient given recent successes of passively-trained language models in interactive domains such as tool use. Passive learning is inherently limited. However, we show that purely passive learning can in fact allow an agent to learn generalizable strategies for determining and using causal structures, as long as the agent can intervene at test time. We formally illustrate that learning a strategy of first experimenting, then seeking goals, can allow generalization from passive learning in principle. We then show empirically that agents trained via imitation on expert data can indeed generalize at test time to infer and use causal links which are never present in the training data; these agents can also generalize experimentation strategies to novel variable sets never observed in training.We then show that strategies for causal intervention and exploitation can be generalized from passive data even in a more complex environment with high-dimensional observations, with the support of natural language explanations. Explanations can even allow passive learners to generalize out-of-distribution from perfectly-confounded training data. Finally, we show that language models, trained only on passive next-word prediction, can generalize causal intervention strategies from a few-shot prompt containing explanations and reasoning. These results highlight the surprising power of passive learning of active causal strategies, and have implications for understanding the behaviors and capabilities of language models.