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Diffusion-based neuromodulation can eliminate catastrophic forgetting in simple neural networks



A long-term goal of AI is to produce agents that can learn a diversity of skills throughout their lifetimes and continuously improve those skills via experience. A longstanding obstacle towards that goal is catastrophic forgetting, which is when learning new information erases previously learned information. Catastrophic forgetting occurs in artificial neural networks (ANNs), which have fueled most recent advances in AI. A recent paper proposed that catastrophic forgetting in ANNs can be reduced by promoting modularity, which can limit forgetting by isolating task information to specific clusters of nodes and connections (functional modules). While the prior work did show that modular ANNs suffered less from catastrophic forgetting, it was not able to produce ANNs that possessed task-specific functional modules, thereby leaving the main theory regarding modularity and forgetting untested. We introduce diffusion-based neuromodulation, which simulates the release of diffusing, neuromodulatory chemicals within an ANN that can modulate (i.e. up or down regulate) learning in a spatial region. On the simple diagnostic problem from the prior work, diffusion-based neuromodulation 1) induces task-specific learning in groups of nodes and connections (task-specific localized learning), which 2) produces functional modules for each subtask, and 3) yields higher performance by eliminating catastrophic forgetting. Overall, our results suggest that diffusion-based neuromodulation promotes task-specific localized learning and functional modularity, which can help solve the challenging, but important problem of catastrophic forgetting.


Roby Velez, Jeff Clune


PLoS ONE 12(11): e0187736.

Full Paper

‘Diffusion-based neuromodulation can eliminate catastrophic forgetting in simple neural networks’ (PDF)

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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