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Differentiable plasticity: training plastic neural networks with backpropagation


How can we build agents that keep learning from experience, quickly and efficiently, after their initial training? Here we take inspiration from the main mechanism of learning in biological brains: synaptic plasticity, carefully tuned by evolution to produce efficient lifelong learning. We show that plasticity, just like connection weights, can be optimized by gradient descent in large (millions of parameters) recurrent networks with Hebbian plastic connections. First, recurrent plastic networks with more than two million parameters can be trained to memorize and reconstruct sets of novel, high-dimensional 1000+ pixels natural images not seen during training. Crucially, traditional non-plastic recurrent networks fail to solve this task. Furthermore, trained plastic networks can also solve generic meta-learning tasks such as the Omniglot task, with competitive results and little parameter overhead. Finally, in reinforcement learning settings, plastic networks outperform a non-plastic equivalent in a maze exploration task. We conclude that differentiable plasticity may provide a powerful novel approach to the learning-to-learn problem.


Thomas Miconi, Jeff Clune, Kenneth O. Stanley


ICML 2018

Full Paper

‘Differentiable plasticity: training plastic neural networks with backpropagation’ (PDF)

Uber AI

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Jeff Clune
Jeff Clune is the former Loy and Edith Harris Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Wyoming, a Senior Research Manager and founding member of Uber AI Labs, and currently a Research Team Leader at OpenAI. Jeff focuses on robotics and training neural networks via deep learning and deep reinforcement learning. He has also researched open questions in evolutionary biology using computational models of evolution, including studying the evolutionary origins of modularity, hierarchy, and evolvability. Prior to becoming a professor, he was a Research Scientist at Cornell University, received a PhD in computer science and an MA in philosophy from Michigan State University, and received a BA in philosophy from the University of Michigan. More about Jeff’s research can be found at
Kenneth O. Stanley
Before joining Uber AI Labs full time, Ken was an associate professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida (he is currently on leave). He is a leader in neuroevolution (combining neural networks with evolutionary techniques), where he helped invent prominent algorithms such as NEAT, CPPNs, HyperNEAT, and novelty search. His ideas have also reached a broader audience through the recent popular science book, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.