Using Super Mario to understand neural networks

I doubt I will ever program a neural network, but I’m trying to understand how they work — and how they are trained — well enough to make assumptions about how the systems work. What I want to be able to do is raise questions when I hear about a new-to-me AI system. I don’t want to take it on faith that a system is safe and likely to function well.

Ultimately I want to help my journalism and communications students understand this too.

Last week I discussed here a video about how neural networks work. Some time before I found that video, I had watched this one a couple of times. It’s from 2015 and it’s only 6 minutes long. It’s been viewed on YouTube more than 9 million times. In fact, it’s pretty close to 1 billion views!

Video game designer Seth Bling demonstrates a fully trained neural network that plays Mario expertly. Then he shows us how the system looks at the start, when the Mario character just stands in one place and dies every time. This is the untrained neural network, when it “knows” nothing.

Unlike the example in my earlier post — where the input to the neural network was an image of a handwritten number, and the output was the number (thereby “reading” the image) — here the input is the game state, which changes by the split second. The game state is a simplified digital representation of the Mario character, the surfaces he can run on or jump to, and any obstacles or rewards that are present. The output is which button should be pressed — holding down right continuously makes Mario run toward the right without stopping.

So the output layer in this neural network is the set of all possible actions Mario can take. For a human playing the game, these would be the buttons on the game controller.

In the training, Mario has a “fitness level,” which is a number. When Mario is dying all the time, that number stays around 2. When Mario reaches the end of the level without dying (but without scoring extra points), his fitness is 528. So by “looking at” the fitness level, the neural net assesses success. If the number has increased, then keep doing the same thing.

“The more lines and neurons you have, the more nuanced the decisions can be.”

—Seth Bling

Of course there are more actions than only moving right. Training the neural net to make Mario jump and perform more actions required many generations of neural nets, and only the best-performing ones were selected for the next generation. After 34 generations, the fitness level reached 4,000.

One thing I especially like about this video is the simultaneous visual of real Mario running in the real game level, along with a representation of the neural net showing its pathways in green and red. There is no code and no math in this video, and so while watching it, you are only thinking about how the connections come to be made and reinforced.

The method used is called NeuroEvolution of Augmenting Topologies (NEAT), which I’ve read almost nothing about — but apparently it enables the neural net to grow itself, essentially. Which is kind of mind blowing.

Bling shared his code here; it’s written in the Lua language.

Creative Commons License
AI in Media and Society by Mindy McAdams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Include the author’s name (Mindy McAdams) and a link to the original post in any reuse of this content.

.

What is a neural network and how does it work?

The most wonderful thing about YouTube is you can use it to learn just about anything.

One of the 10,000 annoying things about YouTube is finding a good, satisfying version of the lesson you want to learn can take hours of searching. This is especially true of videos about technical aspects of machine learning. Of course there are one- and two-hour recordings of course lectures by computer science professors. But I’ve been seeking out shorter videos with more animations and illustrations of concepts.

Understanding what a neural network is and how it processes data is necessary to demystifying machine learning. Data goes in, results come out — but in between is a “black box” consisting of code and hardware. It sort of works like a human brain, and yet, it really doesn’t.

So here at last is a painless, math-free video that walks us through a neural network. The particular example shown uses the MNIST dataset, which consists of 70,000 images of handwritten digits, 0–9. So the task being performed is the recognition of those digits. (This kind of system can be used to sort mail using postal codes, for example.)

What you’ll see is how the first layer (a vertical line of circles on the left side) represents the input. If each of the MNIST images is 28 pixels wide by 28 pixels high, then that first layer has to represent 784 pixels and each of their color values — which is a number. (One image is the input — only one at a time.)

The final vertical layer, all the way to right side, is the output of the neural network. In this example, the output tells us which digit was in the input — 0, 1, 2, etc. To see the value in this, go back to the mail-sorting idea. If a system can read postal codes, it recognizes several numbers and then transmits them to another system that “knows” which postal code goes to which geographical location. My letter gets sorted into the Florida bin and yours into the bin for your home.

In between the input and the output are the vertical “hidden” layers, and that’s where the real work gets done. In the video you’ll see that the number of circles — often called neurons, but they can also be called just units — in a hidden layer might well be less than the number of units in the input layer. The number of units in the output layer can also differ from the numbers in other layers.

When the video describes edge detection, you might recall an earlier post here.

Beautifully, during an animation, our teacher Grant Sanderson explains and shows that the weights exist not in or on the units (the “neurons”) but in fact in or on the connections between the units.

Okay, I lied a little. There is some math shown here. The weight assigned to the connection is multiplied by the value of the unit to the left. The results are all summed, for all left-side units, and that sum is assigned to the unit to the right (meaning the right side of that one connection).

The video bogs down just a bit between the Sigmoid squishification function and applying the bias, but all you really need to grasp is that the value of the right-side unit shows whether or not that little region of the image (in this case, it’s an image) has a significant difference. The math is there to determine if the color, the amount of color, is significant enough to count. And how much it should count.

I know — math, right?

But seriously, watch the video. It’s excellent.

“And that’s a lot to think about! With this hidden layer of 16 neurons, that’s a total of 784 times 16 weights, along with 16 biases. And all of that is just the connections from the first layer to the second.”

—Grant Sanderson, But what is a neural network? (video)

Sanderson doesn’t burden us with the details of the additional layers. Once you’ve seen the animations for that first step — from the input layer through the connections to the first hidden layer — you’ll have a real appreciation for what’s happening under the hood in a neural network.

In the final 6 minutes of this 19-minute video, you’ll also learn how the “learning” takes place in machine learning when a neural net is involved. All those weights and bias values? They are not determined by humans.

“Digging into what the weights and biases are doing is a good way to challenge your assumptions and really expose the full space of possible solutions.”

—Grant Sanderson, But what is a neural network? (video)

I confess it does get rather mathy at the end, but hang on through the parts that are beyond your personal math background and listen to what Sanderson is telling us. You can get a lot out of it even if the equation itself is like hieroglyphics to you.

The video content ends at 16:26, followed by the usual “subscribe to my channel” message. More info about Sanderson and his excellent videos is on his website, 3Blue1Brown.

Creative Commons License
AI in Media and Society by Mindy McAdams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Include the author’s name (Mindy McAdams) and a link to the original post in any reuse of this content.

.

Interrogating the size of AI algorithms

I have watched so many videos in my journey to understand how artificial intelligence and machine learning work, and one of my favorite YouTube channels belongs to Jordan Harrod. She’s a Ph.D. student working on neuroengineering, brain-machine interfaces, and machine learning.

I began learning about convolutional neural networks in my reading about AI. Like most people (?), I had a vague idea of a neural network being modeled after a human brain, with parallel processors wired together like human synapses. When you read about neural nets in AI, though, you are not reading about processors, computer chips, or hardware. Instead, you read about layers and weights. (Among other things.)

A deep neural network has multiple layers. That’s what makes it “deep.” You’ll see these layers in a simple diagram in the 4-minute video below. A convolutional neural network has hidden layers. These are not hidden as in “secret”; they are called hidden because they are sandwiched in between the input layer and and output layer.

The weights are — as with all computer data — numeric. What happens in machine learning is that the weights associated with each node in a layer are adjusted, again and again, during the process of training the AI — with an end result that the neural network’s output is more accurate, or even highly accurate.

As Harrod points out, not all AI systems include a neural network. She says that “training a model will almost always produce a set of values that correspond or are analogous to weights in a neural network.” I need to think more about that.

Now, does Harrod definitively answer the question “How big is an AI algorithm?” Not really. But she provides a nice set of concepts to help us understand why there isn’t just one simple answer to this question. She offers a glimpse at the way AI works under the hood that might make you hungry to learn more.

Creative Commons License
AI in Media and Society by Mindy McAdams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Include the author’s name (Mindy McAdams) and a link to the original post in any reuse of this content.

.

How machines ‘see’

I am fascinated by image recognition. I read about how ImageNet changed the whole universe of machine “vision” in 2009 in the excellent book Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, but I’m not going to discuss ImageNet in this post. (I will get to it eventually.)

To think about how a machine sees requires us first to think about human eyes vs. cameras. The machine doesn’t have a biological eyeball and an optic nerve and a brain. The machine might have one or more cameras to allow it to take in visual information.

Whether the machine has cameras or not, the images it receives are the same: digital images, made up entirely of pixels. This is true even if the visual inputs are video. The machine will need to sample that video, taking discrete frames from it to process and analyze.

So the first thing to absorb, as you begin to understand how a machine sees, is that it receives a grid of pixels. If it’s video, then there are a lot of separate grids. If it’s one still image, there is one grid. And how does the machine process that grid? It analyzes the differences between groups of pixels.

This 4-minute video, from an artist and programmer named Gene Kogan, helped me a lot.

Most people have an idea (possibly vague) of how the human brain works, with neurons kind of “wired together” in a network. When we imagine a computer neural network, most of us probably factor in that mental image of a brain full of neurons. This is both semi-accurate and wildly inaccurate.

In his video, Kogan points out that an image-recognition system uses a convolutional neural network, and this network has many, many layers.

When he’s clicking down the list in his video, Kogan is showing us what the different layers are “paying attention to” as the video is continuously chopped into one-frame segments. The mind-blowing thing (to me) is that the layers feed forward and backward to each other — ultimately producing the result he shows near the end, when he can hold a water bottle in front of his webcam, and the software says it sees a water bottle.

Screenshot of man holding water bottle and neural net evaluation of video image
Above: Screenshot from 3:10 in the video

Notice too, that “water bottle” is the machine’s top guess at that moment. Its number 2 guess is “bow tie.” Its confidence in “water bottle” is not very high, as shown by the red bar to the left of the label. However, the machine’s confidence in “water bottle” is much higher than all the other things it determines it might be seeing in that frame.

After watching this video, I understood why super-fast graphics-processing hardware is so important to image recognition and machine vision.

In tomorrow’s post, I’m going to say a bit more about these ideas and share a completely different video that also helped me a lot in my attempt to understand how machines see.

Creative Commons License
AI in Media and Society by Mindy McAdams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Include the author’s name (Mindy McAdams) and a link to the original post in any reuse of this content.

.