Unifying (Machine) Vision via Counterfactual World Modeling

Leading approaches in machine vision employ different architectures for different tasks, trained on costly task-specific labeled datasets. This complexity has held back progress in areas, such as robotics, where robust task-general perception remains a bottleneck. In contrast, "foundation models" of natural language have shown how large pre-trained neural networks can provide zero-shot solutions to a broad spectrum of apparently distinct tasks. Here we introduce Counterfactual World Modeling (CWM), a framework for constructing a visual foundation model: a unified, unsupervised network that can be prompted to perform a wide variety of visual computations. CWM has two key components, which resolve the core issues that have hindered application of the foundation model concept to vision. The first is structured masking, a generalization of masked prediction methods that encourages a prediction model to capture the low-dimensional structure in visual data. The model thereby factors the key physical components of a scene and exposes an interface to them via small sets of visual tokens. This in turn enables CWM's second main idea -- counterfactual prompting -- the observation that many apparently distinct visual representations can be computed, in a zero-shot manner, by comparing the prediction model's output on real inputs versus slightly modified ("counterfactual") inputs. We show that CWM generates high-quality readouts on real-world images and videos for a diversity of tasks, including estimation of keypoints, optical flow, occlusions, object segments, and relative depth. Taken together, our results show that CWM is a promising path to unifying the manifold strands of machine vision in a conceptually simple foundation.

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