Oral 1 Track 3: Neuroscience and Cognitive Science & General Machine Learning



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Mon 1 May 1:00 - 1:10 PDT

A probabilistic framework for task-aligned intra- and inter-area neural manifold estimation

Edoardo Balzani · Jean-Paul Noel · Pedro Herrero-Vidal · Dora Angelaki · Cristina Savin

Latent manifolds provide a compact characterization of neural population activity and of shared co-variability across brain areas. Nonetheless, existing statistical tools for extracting neural manifolds face limitations in terms of interpretability of latents with respect to task variables, and can be hard to apply to datasets with no trial repeats. Here we propose a novel probabilistic framework that allows for interpretable partitioning of population variability within and across areas in the context of naturalistic behavior. Our approach for task aligned manifold estimation (TAME-GP) explicitly partitions variability into private and shared sources which can themselves be subdivided in task-relevant and task irrelevant components, uses a realistic Poisson noise model, and introduces temporal smoothing of latent trajectories in the form of a Gaussian Process prior. This TAME-GP graphical model allows for robust estimation of task-relevant variability in local population responses, and of shared co-variability between brain areas. We demonstrate the efficiency of our estimator on within model and biologically motivated simulated data. We also apply it to several datasets of neural population recordings during behavior. Overall, our results demonstrate the capacity of TAME-GP to capture meaningful intra- and inter-area neural variability with single trial resolution.

Mon 1 May 1:10 - 1:20 PDT

Neuroevolution is a Competitive Alternative to Reinforcement Learning for Skill Discovery

Felix Chalumeau · Raphael Boige · Bryan Lim · Valentin Macé · Maxime Allard · Arthur Flajolet · Antoine Cully · Thomas PIERROT

Deep Reinforcement Learning (RL) has emerged as a powerful paradigm for training neural policies to solve complex control tasks. However, these policies tend to be overfit to the exact specifications of the task and environment they were trained on, and thus do not perform well when conditions deviate slightly or when composed hierarchically to solve even more complex tasks. Recent work has shown that training a mixture of policies, as opposed to a single one, that are driven to explore different regions of the state-action space can address this shortcoming by generating a diverse set of behaviors, referred to as skills, that can be collectively used to great effect in adaptation tasks or for hierarchical planning. This is typically realized by including a diversity term - often derived from information theory - in the objective function optimized by RL. However these approaches often require careful hyperparameter tuning to be effective. In this work, we demonstrate that less widely-used neuroevolution methods, specifically Quality Diversity (QD), are a competitive alternative to information-theory-augmented RL for skill discovery. Through an extensive empirical evaluation comparing eight state-of-the-art algorithms (four flagship algorithms from each line of work) on the basis of (i) metrics directly evaluating the skills' diversity, (ii) the skills' performance on adaptation tasks, and (iii) the skills' performance when used as primitives for hierarchical planning; QD methods are found to provide equal, and sometimes improved, performance whilst being less sensitive to hyperparameters and more scalable. As no single method is found to provide near-optimal performance across all environments, there is a rich scope for further research which we support by proposing future directions and providing optimized open-source implementations.

Mon 1 May 1:20 - 1:30 PDT

Honorable Mention
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.

Mon 1 May 1:30 - 1:40 PDT

Hebbian Deep Learning Without Feedback

Adrien Journé · Hector Garcia Rodriguez · Qinghai Guo · Timoleon Moraitis

Recent approximations to backpropagation (BP) have mitigated many of BP's computational inefficiencies and incompatibilities with biology, but important limitations still remain. Moreover, the approximations significantly decrease accuracy in benchmarks, suggesting that an entirely different approach may be more fruitful. Here, grounded on recent theory for Hebbian learning in soft winner-take-all networks, we present multilayer SoftHebb, i.e. an algorithm that trains deep neural networks, without any feedback, target, or error signals. As a result, it achieves efficiency by avoiding weight transport, non-local plasticity, time-locking of layer updates, iterative equilibria, and (self-) supervisory or other feedback signals – which were necessary in other approaches. Its increased efficiency and biological compatibility do not trade off accuracy compared to state-of-the-art bio-plausible learning, but rather improve it. With up to five hidden layers and an added linear classifier, accuracies on MNIST, CIFAR-10, STL-10, and ImageNet, respectively reach 99.4%, 80.3%, 76.2%, and 27.3%. In conclusion, SoftHebb shows with a radically different approach from BP that Deep Learning over few layers may be plausible in the brain and increases the accuracy of bio-plausible machine learning. Code is available at

Mon 1 May 1:40 - 1:50 PDT

Domain Generalization via Heckman-type Selection Models

Hyungu Kahng · Hyungrok Do · Judy Zhong

The domain generalization (DG) setup considers the problem where models are trained on data sampled from multiple domains and evaluated on test domains unseen during training. In this paper, we formulate DG as a sample selection problem where each domain is sampled from a common underlying population through non-random sampling probabilities that correlate with both the features and the outcome. Under this setting, the fundamental iid assumption of the empirical risk minimization (ERM) is violated, so it often performs worse on test domains whose non-random sampling probabilities differ from the domains in the training dataset. We propose a Selection-Guided DG (SGDG) framework to learn the selection probability of each domain and the joint distribution of the outcome and domain selection variables. The proposed SGDG is domain generalizable as it intends to minimize the risk under the population distribution. We theoretically proved that, under certain regular conditions, SGDG can achieve smaller risk than ERM. Furthermore, we present a class of parametric SGDG (HeckmanDG) estimators applicable to continuous, binary, and multinomial outcomes. We also demonstrated its efficacy empirically through simulations and experiments on a set of benchmark datasets comparing with other well-known DG methods.