What is the role of a neuron?

14 October 2021
David Bau

One of the great challenges of neural networks is to understand how they work.  For example: does a neuron encode a meaningful signal on its own?  Or is a neuron simply an undistinguished and arbitrary component of a feature vector space?  The tension between the neuron doctrine and the population coding hypothesis is one of the classical debates in neuroscience. It is a difficult debate to settle without an ability to monitor every individual neuron in the brain.


Within artificial neural networks we can examine every neuron. Beginning with the simple proposal that an individual neuron might represent one internal concept, we conduct studies relating deep network neurons to human-understandable concepts in a concrete, quantitative way: Which neurons? Which concepts? Are neurons more meaningful than an arbitrary feature basis? Do neurons play a causal role? We examine both simplified settings and state-of-the-art networks in which neurons learn how to represent meaningful objects within the data without explicit supervision.


Following this inquiry in computer vision leads us to insights about the computational structure of practical deep networks that enable several new applications, including semantic manipulation of objects in an image; understanding of the sparse logic of a classifier; and quick, selective editing of generalizable rules within a fully trained generative network.  It also presents an unanswered mathematical question: why is such disentanglement so pervasive?


In the talk, we challenge the notion that the internal calculations of a neural network must be hopelessly opaque. Instead, we propose to tear back the curtain and chart a path through the detailed structure of a deep network by which we can begin to understand its logic.


  • Data Science Seminar