Our brains are incredibly adaptive. Every day we form memories, acquire new knowledge or refine existing skills. This stands in contrast to our current computers, which typically can only perform pre-programmed actions. Our own ability to adapt is the result of a process called synaptic plasticity, in which the strength of the connections between neurons can change. To better understand brain function and build adaptive machines, researchers in neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI) are modeling the underlying mechanisms.
So far, most work towards this goal was guided by human intuition – that is, by the strategies scientists think are most likely to succeed. Despite the tremendous progress, this approach has two drawbacks. First, human time is limited and expensive. And second, researchers have a natural – and reasonable – tendency to incrementally improve upon existing models, rather than starting from scratch.
Jordan, Schmidt et al. have now developed a new approach based on ‘evolutionary algorithms’. These computer programs search for solutions to problems by mimicking the process of biological evolution, such as the concept of survival of the fittest. The approach exploits the increasing availability of cheap but powerful computers. Compared to its predecessors (or indeed human brains), it also uses search strategies that are less biased by previous models.
The evolutionary algorithms were presented with three typical learning scenarios. In the first, the computer had to spot a repeating pattern in a continuous stream of input without receiving feedback on how well it was doing. In the second scenario, the computer received virtual rewards whenever it behaved in the desired manner – an example of reinforcement learning. Finally, in the third ‘supervised learning’ scenario, the computer was told exactly how much its behavior deviated from the desired behavior. For each of these scenarios, the evolutionary algorithms were able to discover mechanisms of synaptic plasticity to solve the new task successfully.
Using evolutionary algorithms to study how computers ‘learn’ will provide new insights into how brains function in health and disease. It could also pave the way for developing intelligent machines that can better adapt to the needs of their users.