Google Research

Universality and Individuality in recurrent networks

  • Niru Maheswaranathan
  • Alex Williams
  • Matthew Golub
  • Surya Ganguli
  • David Sussillo
NeurIPS Spotlight (2019) (to appear)


Many recent studies have employed task-based modeling with recurrent neural networks (RNNs) to infer the computational function of different brain regions. These models are often assessed by quantitatively comparing the low-dimensional neural dynamics of the model and the brain, for example using canonical correlation analysis (CCA). However, the nature of the detailed neurobiological inferences one can draw from such efforts remains elusive. For example, to what extent does training neural networks to solve simple tasks, prevalent in neuroscientific studies, uniquely determine the low-dimensional dynamics independent of neural architectures? Or alternatively, are the learned dynamics highly sensitive to different neural architectures? Knowing the answer to these questions has strong implications on whether and how to use task-based RNN modeling to understand brain dynamics. To address these foundational questions, we study populations of thousands of networks of commonly used RNN architectures trained to solve neuroscientifically motivated tasks and characterize their low-dimensional dynamics via CCA and nonlinear dynamical systems analysis. We find the geometry of the dynamics can be highly sensitive to different network architectures, and further find striking dissociations between geometric similarity as measured by CCA and network function, yielding a cautionary tale. Moreover, we find that while the geometry of neural dynamics can vary greatly across architectures, the underlying computational scaffold: the topological structure of fixed points, transitions between them, limit cycles, and linearized dynamics, often appears {\it universal} across all architectures. Overall, this analysis of universality and individuality across large populations of RNNs provides a much needed foundation for interpreting quantitative measures of dynamical similarity between RNN and brain dynamics.

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