A deep learning framework for neuroscience

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Systems neuroscience seeks explanations for how the brain implements a wide variety of perceptual, cognitive and motor tasks. Conversely, artificial intelligence attempts to design computational systems based on the tasks they will have to solve. In artificial neural networks, the three components specified by design are the objective functions, the learning rules and the architectures. With the growing success of deep learning, which utilizes brain-inspired architectures, these three designed components have increasingly become central to how we model, engineer and optimize complex artificial learning systems. Here we argue that a greater focus on these components would also benefit systems neuroscience. We give examples of how this optimization-based framework can drive theoretical and experimental progress in neuroscience. We contend that this principled perspective on systems neuroscience will help to generate more rapid progress.

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Fig. 1: The three core components of ANN design.
Fig. 2: Bias and variance in learning rules.
Fig. 3: Learning rules that don’t follow gradients.
Fig. 4: Comparing deep ANN models and the brain.
Fig. 5: Biological models of credit assignment.


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This article emerged from a workshop on optimization in the brain that took place February 24–28, 2019 at the Bellairs Research Institute of McGill University. We thank Element AI and Bellairs Research Institute for their critical support in organizing this workshop. This work was also supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Learning in Machines and Brains Program.

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Correspondence to Blake A. Richards.

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Peer Review Information Nature Neuroscience thanks Gabriel Kreiman and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Richards, B.A., Lillicrap, T.P., Beaudoin, P. et al. A deep learning framework for neuroscience. Nat Neurosci 22, 1761–1770 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41593-019-0520-2

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