Biologically Inspired Spatial Representation

PhD Thesis, 2020

Brent Komer


In this thesis I explore a biologically inspired method of encoding continuous space within a population of neurons. This method provides an extension to the Semantic Pointer Architecture (SPA) to encompass Semantic Pointers with real-valued spatial content in addition to symbol-like representations. I demonstrate how these Spatial Semantic Pointers (SSPs) can be used to generate cognitive maps containing objects at various locations. A series of operations are defined that can retrieve objects or locations from the encoded map as well as manipulate the contents of the memory. These capabilities are all implemented by a network of spiking neurons. I explore the topology of the SSP vector space and show how it preserves metric information while compressing all coordinates to unit length vectors. This allows a limitless spatial extent to be represented in a finite region. Neurons encoding space represented in this manner have firing fields similar to entorhinal grid cells. Beyond constructing biologically plausible models of spatial cognition, SSPs are applied to the domain of machine learning. I demonstrate how replacing traditional spatial encoding mechanisms with SSPs can improve performance on networks trained to compute a navigational policy. In addition, SSPs are also effective for training a network to localize within an environment based on sensor measurements as well as perform path integration. To demonstrate a practical, integrated system using SSPs, I combine a goal driven navigational policy with the localization network and cognitive map representation to produce an agent that can navigate to semantically defined goals. In addition to spatial tasks, the SSP encoding is applied to a more general class of machine learning problems involving arbitrary continuous signals. Results on a collection of 122 benchmark datasets across a variety of domains indicate that neural networks trained with SSP encoding outperform commonly used methods for the majority of the datasets. Overall, the experiments in this thesis demonstrate the importance of exploring new kinds of representations within neural networks and how they shape the kinds of functions that can be effectively computed. They provide an example of how insights regarding how the brain may encode information can inspire new ways of designing artificial neural networks.

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PhD Thesis
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON


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