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Neural circuit policies enabling auditable autonomy


A central goal of artificial intelligence in high-stakes decision-making applications is to design a single algorithm that simultaneously expresses generalizability by learning coherent representations of their world and interpretable explanations of its dynamics. Here, we combine brain-inspired neural computation principles and scalable deep learning architectures to design compact neural controllers for task-specific compartments of a full-stack autonomous vehicle control system. We discover that a single algorithm with 19 control neurons, connecting 32 encapsulated input features to outputs by 253 synapses, learns to map high-dimensional inputs into steering commands. This system shows superior generalizability, interpretability and robustness compared with orders-of-magnitude larger black-box learning systems. The obtained neural agents enable high-fidelity autonomy for task-specific parts of a complex autonomous system.

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Fig. 1: End-to-end driving.
Fig. 2: Recurrent network modules are essential for the lane-keeping tasks.
Fig. 3: Designing NCP networks with an LTC neural model.
Fig. 4: Robustness analysis.
Fig. 5: Global network dynamics.
Fig. 6: Intuitive comprehension of NCP’s cells activity while driving.
Fig. 7: NCPs as task-specific networks within a full-stack autonomous vehicle engine.

Data availability

A description of how to obtain the data and code used for this manuscript is available at the manuscript’s GitHub repository: ( The data generated by the active test runs is available for download from the repository, while the full dataset of 193 GB is available on request from M.L.

Code availability

An Apache-2.0 licensed reference implementation maintained by the authors is available at the GitHub repository: (


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We thank M. Zimmer and the Zimmer Group for constructive discussions. R.H. and R.G. are partially supported by Horizon-2020 ECSEL Project grant no. 783163 (iDev40), and the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG), project no. 860424. M.L. and T.A.H. were supported in part by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) under grant Z211-N23 (Wittgenstein Award). A.A. is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program. A.A. and D.R. were partially sponsored by the United States Air Force Research Laboratory and was accomplished under Cooperative Agreement no. FA8750-19-2-1000. R.H. and D.R. are partially supported by The Boeing Company. This research work is drawn from the PhD dissertation of R.H.

Author information




R.H. and M.L. conceptualized, designed and performed research, and analysed data. A.A. contributed to data curation, research implementation and new analytical tools, and analysed data. R.G., T.A.H. and D.R. helped with the design and supervised the work. All authors wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Mathias Lechner or Ramin Hasani.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Conciseness of the hidden-state dynamics of LSTMs vs NCPs.

a, Hidden state dynamics of 64 LSTM cells as a function of network output. b, Hidden state dynamics of 13 NCP cells as a function of the network output. c, PCA on LSTM cells + output, d, PCA on LSTM cells only. e, PCA on NCP cells + output. f, PCA on NCP cells only. x-axis represents the activity of the output, y-axis stands for the dynamics of an individual neuron. The colour represents the steering angle (The more yellow regions depict sharper turns to the left-hand-side, and the more blue regions stand for sharper turns to the right-hand-side).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Learning curves of the models tested in the active driving experiments.

Early stopping 71,72 is deployed as a regularisation mechanism to obtain better generalisation. The terminating epoch for each experiment, is reported in Extended Data Figure 4.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Neural activity of all NCP neurons presented in Fig. 6.

The colour-bar represents the neuron output of each individual neuron in the NCP architecture.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Coupling sensitivity of all NCP neurons presented in Fig. 6.

The colour-bar represents the time constant of each individual neuron in the NCP architecture.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Convolutional head.

Size of the convolutional kernels.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Layers of the feedforward CNN, adapted from 2.

Conv2D refers to a convolutional layer, F to the number of filters, K to the kernel size, S to the strides, U to the number of units in a fully-connected layer. The values of the dropout-rates δ1,δ2, and δ3 were optimised on the passive benchmark and reported in Extended Data Figure 3.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Models’ training hyperparameters.

The values of all hyperparameters were selected through empirical evaluation over the passive training dataset. We did not search through the hyperparameters space exhaustively, due to the computational costs. However, the use of a systematic meta-learning algorithm over these parameter-spaces can presumably result in achieving better performances.

Extended Data Fig. 8 The learning termination epoch properties, (shown in Extended Data Fig. 2).

Training and validation metrics of the models tested in the active driving experiment. As discussed thoroughly (Fig. 4), LSTM model achieves the best performance in the passive test but fails to express proper driving behaviour under environmental disturbances.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Video 1

NCP—driving performance with no perturbation.

Supplementary Video 2

CNN—driving performance with no perturbation.

Supplementary Video 3

LSTM—driving performance with no perturbation.

Supplementary Video 4

CT-RNN—driving performance with no perturbation.

Supplementary Video 5

NCP—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.1.

Supplementary Video 6

CNN—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.1.

Supplementary Video 7

LSTM—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.1.

Supplementary Video 8

CT-RNN—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.1.

Supplementary Video 9

NCP—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.2.

Supplementary Video 10

CNN—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.2.

Supplementary Video 11

LSTM—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.2.

Supplementary Video 12

CT-RNN—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.2.

Supplementary Video 13

NCP—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.3.

Supplementary Video 14

CNN—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.3.

Supplementary Video 15

LSTM—driving performance with perturbations variance = 0.3.

Supplementary Video 16

CT-RNN—driving performance with perturbation variance = 0.3.

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Lechner, M., Hasani, R., Amini, A. et al. Neural circuit policies enabling auditable autonomy. Nat Mach Intell 2, 642–652 (2020).

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