“Neural Networks, Manifolds, and Topology” is an interesting blog post that explores the links between machine learning, in this case neural networks, and aspects of mathematics. This post builds on Jesse Johnson’s posts about neural networks on his blog, The Shape of Data: Neural Networks 1: The Neuron, Neural Networks 2: Evaluation, and Neural Networks 3: Training.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

‘Recently, there’s been a great deal of excitement and interest in deep neural networks because they’ve achieved breakthrough results in areas such as computer vision.1

However, there remain a number of concerns about them. One is that it can be quite challenging to understand what a neural network is really doing. If one trains it well, it achieves high quality results, but it is challenging to understand how it is doing so. If the network fails, it is hard to understand what went wrong.

While it is challenging to understand the behavior of deep neural networks in general, it turns out to be much easier to explore low-dimensional deep neural networks – networks that only have a few neurons in each layer. In fact, we can create visualizations to completely understand the behavior and training of such networks. This perspective will allow us to gain deeper intuition about the behavior of neural networks and observe a connection linking neural networks to an area of mathematics called topology.

A number of interesting things follow from this, including fundamental lower-bounds on the complexity of a neural network capable of classifying certain datasets.‘

‘The Manifold Hypothesis

Is this relevant to real world data sets, like image data? If you take the manifold hypothesis really seriously, I think it bears consideration.

The manifold hypothesis is that natural data forms lower-dimensional manifolds in its embedding space. There are both theoretical3 and experimental4 reasons to believe this to be true. If you believe this, then the task of a classification algorithm is fundamentally to separate a bunch of tangled manifolds.‘

‘K-Nearest Neighbor Layers

I’ve also begun to think that linear separability may be a huge, and possibly unreasonable, amount to demand of a neural network. In some ways, it feels like the natural thing to do would be to use k-nearest neighbors (k-NN). However, k-NN’s success is greatly dependent on the representation it classifies data from, so one needs a good representation before k-NN can work well.

As a first experiment, I trained some MNIST networks (two-layer convolutional nets, no dropout) that achieved ∼1% test error. I then dropped the final softmax layer and used the k-NN algorithm. I was able to consistently achieve a reduction in test error of 0.1-0.2%.

Still, this doesn’t quite feel like the right thing. The network is still trying to do linear classification, but since we use k-NN at test time, it’s able to recover a bit from mistakes it made.

k-NN is differentiable with respect to the representation it’s acting on, because of the 1/distance weighting. As such, we can train a network directly for k-NN classification. This can be thought of as a kind of “nearest neighbor” layer that acts as an alternative to softmax.

We don’t want to feedforward our entire training set for each mini-batch because that would be very computationally expensive. I think a nice approach is to classify each element of the mini-batch based on the classes of other elements of the mini-batch, giving each one a weight of 1/(distance from classification target).9

Sadly, even with sophisticated architecture, using k-NN only gets down to 5-4% test error – and using simpler architectures gets worse results. However, I’ve put very little effort into playing with hyper-parameters.

Still, I really aesthetically like this approach, because it seems like what we’re “asking” the network to do is much more reasonable. We want points of the same manifold to be closer than points of others, as opposed to the manifolds being separable by a hyperplane. This should correspond to inflating the space between manifolds for different categories and contracting the individual manifolds. It feels like simplification.

Conclusion

Topological properties of data, such as links, may make it impossible to linearly separate classes using low-dimensional networks, regardless of depth. Even in cases where it is technically possible, such as spirals, it can be very challenging to do so.

To accurately classify data with neural networks, wide layers are sometimes necessary. Further, traditional neural network layers do not seem to be very good at representing important manipulations of manifolds; even if we were to cleverly set weights by hand, it would be challenging to compactly represent the transformations we want. New layers, specifically motivated by the manifold perspective of machine learning, may be useful supplements.‘

The entire article can be read here.