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Safe Mutations for Deep and Recurrent Neural Networks through Output Gradients


While neuroevolution (evolving neural networks) has a successful track record across a variety of domains from reinforcement learning to artificial life, it is rarely applied to large, deep neural networks. A central reason is that while random mutation generally works in low dimensions, a random perturbation of thousands or millions of weights is likely to break existing functionality, providing no learning signal even if some individual weight changes were beneficial. This paper proposes a solution by introducing a family of safe mutation (SM) operators that aim within the mutation operator itself to find a degree of change that does not alter network behavior too much, but still facilitates exploration. Importantly, these SM operators do not require any additional interactions with the environment. The most effective SM variant capitalizes on the intriguing opportunity to scale the degree of mutation of each individual weight according to the sensitivity of the network’s outputs to that weight, which requires computing the gradient of outputs with respect to the weights (instead of the gradient of error, as in conventional deep learning). This safe mutation through gradients (SM-G) operator dramatically increases the ability of a simple genetic algorithm-based neuroevolution method to find solutions in high-dimensional domains that require deep and/or recurrent neural networks (which tend to be particularly brittle to mutation), including domains that require processing raw pixels. By improving our ability to evolve deep neural networks, this new safer approach to mutation expands the scope of domains amenable to neuroevolution.


Joel Lehman, Jay Chen, Jeff Clune, Kenneth O. Stanley


GECCO 2018

Full Paper

‘Safe Mutations for Deep and Recurrent Neural Networks through Output Gradients’ (PDF)

Uber AI

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Joel Lehman was previously an assistant professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, and researches neural networks, evolutionary algorithms, and reinforcement learning.
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
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.