Computation with Sequences in a Model of the Brain

6 Jun 2023  ·  Max Dabagia, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Santosh S. Vempala ·

Even as machine learning exceeds human-level performance on many applications, the generality, robustness, and rapidity of the brain's learning capabilities remain unmatched. How cognition arises from neural activity is a central open question in neuroscience, inextricable from the study of intelligence itself. A simple formal model of neural activity was proposed in Papadimitriou [2020] and has been subsequently shown, through both mathematical proofs and simulations, to be capable of implementing certain simple cognitive operations via the creation and manipulation of assemblies of neurons. However, many intelligent behaviors rely on the ability to recognize, store, and manipulate temporal sequences of stimuli (planning, language, navigation, to list a few). Here we show that, in the same model, time can be captured naturally as precedence through synaptic weights and plasticity, and, as a result, a range of computations on sequences of assemblies can be carried out. In particular, repeated presentation of a sequence of stimuli leads to the memorization of the sequence through corresponding neural assemblies: upon future presentation of any stimulus in the sequence, the corresponding assembly and its subsequent ones will be activated, one after the other, until the end of the sequence. Finally, we show that any finite state machine can be learned in a similar way, through the presentation of appropriate patterns of sequences. Through an extension of this mechanism, the model can be shown to be capable of universal computation. We support our analysis with a number of experiments to probe the limits of learning in this model in key ways. Taken together, these results provide a concrete hypothesis for the basis of the brain's remarkable abilities to compute and learn, with sequences playing a vital role.

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