Artificial Neural Networks Technology

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What are Artificial Neural Networks?

Artificial Neural Networks are relatively crude electronic models based on the neural structure of the brain. The brain basically learns from experience. It is natural proof that some problems that are beyond the scope of current computers are indeed solvable by small energy efficient packages. This brain modeling also promises a less technical way to develop machine solutions. This new approach to computing also provides a more graceful degradation during system overload than its more traditional counterparts.

These biologically inspired methods of computing are thought to be the next major advancement in the computing industry. Even simple animal brains are capable of functions that are currently impossible for computers. Computers do rote things well, like keeping ledgers or performing complex math. But computers have trouble recognizing even simple patterns much less generalizing those patterns of the past into actions of the future.

Now, advances in biological research promise an initial understanding of the natural thinking mechanism. This research shows that brains store information as patterns. Some of these patterns are very complicated and allow us the ability to recognize individual faces from many different angles. This process of storing information as patterns, utilizing those patterns, and then solving problems encompasses a new field in computing. This field, as mentioned before, does not utilize traditional programming but involves the creation of massively parallel networks and the training of those networks to solve specific problems. This field also utilizes words very different from traditional computing, words like behave, react, self-organize, learn, generalize, and forget.

Analogy to the Brain

The exact workings of the human brain are still a mystery. Yet, some aspects of this amazing processor are known. In particular, the most basic element of the human brain is a specific type of cell which, unlike the rest of the body, doesn’t appear to regenerate. Because this type of cell is the only part of the body that isn’t slowly replaced, it is assumed that these cells are what provides us with our abilities to remember, think, and apply previous experiences to our every action. These cells, all 100 billion of them, are known as neurons. Each of these neurons can connect with up to 200,000 other neurons, although 1,000 to 10,000 is typical.

The power of the human mind comes from the sheer numbers of these basic components and the multiple connections between them. It also comes from genetic programming and learning.

The individual neurons are complicated. They have a myriad of parts, sub-systems, and control mechanisms. They convey information via a host of electrochemical pathways. There are over one hundred different classes of neurons, depending on the classification method used. Together these neurons and their connections form a process which is not binary, not stable, and not synchronous. In short, it is nothing like the currently available electronic computers, or even artificial neural networks.

These artificial neural networks try to replicate only the most basic elements of this complicated, versatile, and powerful organism. They do it in a primitive way. But for the software engineer who is trying to solve problems, neural computing was never about replicating human brains. It is about machines and a new way to solve problems.

Artificial Neurons and How They Work

The fundamental processing element of a neural network is a neuron. This building block of human awareness encompasses a few general capabilities. Basically, a biological neuron receives inputs from other sources, combines them in some way, performs a generally nonlinear operation on the result, and then outputs the final result. Figure 2.2.1 shows the relationship of these four parts.

Figure 2.2.1 A Simple Neuron.

Within humans there are many variations on this basic type of neuron, further complicating man’s attempts at electrically replicating the process of thinking. Yet, all natural neurons have the same four basic components. These components are known by their biological names – dendrites, soma, axon, and synapses. Dendrites are hair-like extensions of the soma which act like input channels. These input channels receive their input through the synapses of other neurons. The soma then processes these incoming signals over time. The soma then turns that processed value into an output which is sent out to other neurons through the axon and the synapses.

Recent experimental data has provided further evidence that biological neurons are structurally more complex than the simplistic explanation above. They are significantly more complex than the existing artificial neurons that are built into today’s artificial neural networks. As biology provides a better understanding of neurons, and as technology advances, network designers can continue to improve their systems by building upon man’s understanding of the biological brain.

But currently, the goal of artificial neural networks is not the grandiose recreation of the brain. On the contrary, neural network researchers are seeking an understanding of nature’s capabilities for which people can engineer solutions to problems that have not been solved by traditional computing.

To do this, the basic unit of neural networks, the artificial neurons, simulate the four basic functions of natural neurons. Figure 2.2.2 shows a fundamental representation of an artificial neuron.

Figure 2.2.2 A Basic Artificial Neuron.

In Figure 2.2.2, various inputs to the network are represented by the mathematical symbol, x(n). Each of these inputs are multiplied by a connection weight. These weights are represented by w(n). In the simplest case, these products are simply summed, fed through a transfer function to generate a result, and then output. This process lends itself to physical implementation on a large scale in a small package. This electronic implementation is still possible with other network structures which utilize different summing functions as well as different transfer functions.

Some applications require “black and white,” or binary, answers. These applications include the recognition of text, the identification of speech, and the image deciphering of scenes. These applications are required to turn real-world inputs into discrete values. These potential values are limited to some known set, like the ASCII characters or the most common 50,000 English words. Because of this limitation of output options, these applications don’t always utilize networks composed of neurons that simply sum up, and thereby smooth, inputs. These networks may utilize the binary properties of ORing and ANDing of inputs. These functions, and many others, can be built into the summation and transfer functions of a network.

Other networks work on problems where the resolutions are not just one of several known values. These networks need to be capable of an infinite number of responses. Applications of this type include the “intelligence” behind robotic movements. This “intelligence” processes inputs and then creates outputs which actually cause some device to move. That movement can span an infinite number of very precise motions. These networks do indeed want to smooth their inputs which, due to limitations of sensors, comes in non-continuous bursts, say thirty times a second. To do that, they might accept these inputs, sum that data, and then produce an output by, for example, applying a hyperbolic tangent as a transfer function. In this manner, output values from the network are continuous and satisfy more real world interfaces.

Other applications might simply sum and compare to a threshold, thereby producing one of two possible outputs, a zero or a one. Other functions scale the outputs to match the application, such as the values minus one and one. Some functions even integrate the input data over time, creating time-dependent networks.

Electronic Implementation of Artificial Neurons

In currently available software packages these artificial neurons are called “processing elements” and have many more capabilities than the simple artificial neuron described above. Those capabilities will be discussed later in this report. Figure 2.2.3 is a more detailed schematic of this still simplistic artificial neuron.

Figure 2.2.3 A Model of a “Processing Element”.

In Figure 2.2.3, inputs enter into the processing element from the upper left. The first step is for each of these inputs to be multiplied by their respective weighting factor (w(n)). Then these modified inputs are fed into the summing function, which usually just sums these products. Yet, many different types of operations can be selected. These operations could produce a number of different values which are then propagated forward; values such as the average, the largest, the smallest, the ORed values, the ANDed values, etc. Furthermore, most commercial development products allow software engineers to create their own summing functions via routines coded in a higher level language (C is commonly supported). Sometimes the summing function is further complicated by the addition of an activation function which enables the summing function to operate in a time sensitive way.

Either way, the output of the summing function is then sent into a transfer function. This function then turns this number into a real output via some algorithm. It is this algorithm that takes the input and turns it into a zero or a one, a minus one or a one, or some other number. The transfer functions that are commonly supported are sigmoid, sine, hyperbolic tangent, etc. This transfer function also can scale the output or control its value via thresholds. The result of the transfer function is usually the direct output of the processing element. An example of how a transfer function works is shown in Figure 2.2.4.

This sigmoid transfer function takes the value from the summation function, called sum in the Figure 2.2.4, and turns it into a value between zero and one.

Figure 2.2.4 Sigmoid Transfer Function.

Finally, the processing element is ready to output the result of its transfer function. This output is then input into other processing elements, or to an outside connection, as dictated by the structure of the network.

All artificial neural networks are constructed from this basic building block – the processing element or the artificial neuron. It is variety and the fundamental differences in these building blocks which partially cause the implementing of neural networks to be an “art.”

Artificial Network Operations

The other part of the “art” of using neural networks revolve around the myriad of ways these individual neurons can be clustered together. This clustering occurs in the human mind in such a way that information can be processed in a dynamic, interactive, and self-organizing way. Biologically, neural networks are constructed in a three-dimensional world from microscopic components. These neurons seem capable of nearly unrestricted interconnections. That is not true of any proposed, or existing, man-made network. Integrated circuits, using current technology, are two-dimensional devices with a limited number of layers for interconnection. This physical reality restrains the types, and scope, of artificial neural networks that can be implemented in silicon.

Currently, neural networks are the simple clustering of the primitive artificial neurons. This clustering occurs by creating layers which are then connected to one another. How these layers connect is the other part of the “art” of engineering networks to resolve real world problems.

Figure 2.4.1 A Simple Neural Network Diagram.

Basically, all artificial neural networks have a similar structure or topology as shown in Figure 2.4.1. In that structure some of the neurons interfaces to the real world to receive its inputs. Other neurons provide the real world with the network’s outputs. This output might be the particular character that the network thinks that it has scanned or the particular image it thinks is being viewed. All the rest of the neurons are hidden from view.

But a neural network is more than a bunch of neurons. Some early researchers tried to simply connect neurons in a random manner, without much success. Now, it is known that even the brains of snails are structured devices. One of the easiest ways to design a structure is to create layers of elements. It is the grouping of these neurons into layers, the connections between these layers, and the summation and transfer functions that comprises a functioning neural network. The general terms used to describe these characteristics are common to all networks.

Although there are useful networks which contain only one layer, or even one element, most applications require networks that contain at least the three normal types of layers – input, hidden, and output. The layer of input neurons receive the data either from input files or directly from electronic sensors in real-time applications. The output layer sends information directly to the outside world, to a secondary computer process, or to other devices such as a mechanical control system. Between these two layers can be many hidden layers. These internal layers contain many of the neurons in various interconnected structures. The inputs and outputs of each of these hidden neurons simply go to other neurons.

In most networks each neuron in a hidden layer receives the signals from all of the neurons in a layer above it, typically an input layer. After a neuron performs its function it passes its output to all of the neurons in the layer below it, providing a feedforward path to the output. (Note: in section 5 the drawings are reversed, inputs come into the bottom and outputs come out the top.)

These lines of communication from one neuron to another are important aspects of neural networks. They are the glue to the system. They are the connections which provide a variable strength to an input. There are two types of these connections. One causes the summing mechanism of the next neuron to add while the other causes it to subtract. In more human terms one excites while the other inhibits.

Some networks want a neuron to inhibit the other neurons in the same layer. This is called lateral inhibition. The most common use of this is in the output layer. For example in text recognition if the probability of a character being a “P” is .85 and the probability of the character being an “F” is .65, the network wants to choose the highest probability and inhibit all the others. It can do that with lateral inhibition. This concept is also called competition.

Another type of connection is feedback. This is where the output of one layer routes back to a previous layer. An example of this is shown in Figure 2.4.2.

Figure 2.4.2 Simple Network with Feedback and Competition.

The way that the neurons are connected to each other has a significant impacton the operation of the network. In the larger, more professional softwaredevelopment packages the user is allowed to add, delete, and control theseconnections at will. By “tweaking” parameters these connections can be made toeither excite or inhibit.


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