Keywords: visual system, convolutional neural networks, efficient coding, retina
TL;DR: We reproduced neural representations found in biological visual systems by simulating their neural resource constraints in a deep convolutional model.
Abstract: The vertebrate visual system is hierarchically organized to process visual information in successive stages. Neural representations vary drastically across the first stages of visual processing: at the output of the retina, ganglion cell receptive fields (RFs) exhibit a clear antagonistic center-surround structure, whereas in the primary visual cortex (V1), typical RFs are sharply tuned to a precise orientation. There is currently no unified theory explaining these differences in representations across layers. Here, using a deep convolutional neural network trained on image recognition as a model of the visual system, we show that such differences in representation can emerge as a direct consequence of different neural resource constraints on the retinal and cortical networks, and for the first time we find a single model from which both geometries spontaneously emerge at the appropriate stages of visual processing. The key constraint is a reduced number of neurons at the retinal output, consistent with the anatomy of the optic nerve as a stringent bottleneck. Second, we find that, for simple downstream cortical networks, visual representations at the retinal output emerge as nonlinear and lossy feature detectors, whereas they emerge as linear and faithful encoders of the visual scene for more complex cortical networks. This result predicts that the retinas of small vertebrates (e.g. salamander, frog) should perform sophisticated nonlinear computations, extracting features directly relevant to behavior, whereas retinas of large animals such as primates should mostly encode the visual scene linearly and respond to a much broader range of stimuli. These predictions could reconcile the two seemingly incompatible views of the retina as either performing feature extraction or efficient coding of natural scenes, by suggesting that all vertebrates lie on a spectrum between these two objectives, depending on the degree of neural resources allocated to their visual system.