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In-Person Oral presentation / top 25% paper

Disentanglement with Biological Constraints: A Theory of Functional Cell Types

James Whittington · Will Dorrell · Surya Ganguli · Timothy Behrens



Neurons in the brain are often finely tuned for specific task variables. Moreover, such disentangled representations are highly sought after in machine learning. Here we mathematically prove that simple biological constraints on neurons, namely nonnegativity and energy efficiency in both activity and weights, promote such sought after disentangled representations by enforcing neurons to become selective for single factors of task variation. We demonstrate these constraints lead to disentanglement in a variety of tasks and architectures, including variational autoencoders. We also use this theory to explain why the brain partitions its cells into distinct cell types such as grid and object-vector cells, and also explain when the brain instead entangles representations in response to entangled task factors. Overall, this work provides a mathematical understanding of why single neurons in the brain often represent single human-interpretable factors, and steps towards an understanding task structure shapes the structure of brain representation.

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