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Even as machines known as “deep neural networks” have learned to converse, drive cars, beat video games and Go champions, dream, paint pictures and help make scientific discoveries, they have also confounded their human creators, who never expected so-called “deep-learning” algorithms to work so well. No underlying principle has guided the design of these learning systems, other than vague inspiration drawn from the architecture of the brain (and no one really understands how that operates either).

Like a brain, a deep neural network has layers of neurons—artificial ones that are figments of computer memory. When
 a neuron fires, it sends signals to connected neurons in the layer above. During deep learning, connections in the network are strengthened or weakened as needed to make the system better at sending signals from input data—the pixels of a photo of a dog, for instance—up through the layers
to neurons associated with the right high-level concepts, such as “dog.” After a deep neural network has “learned” from thousands of sample dog photos, it can identify dogs in new photos as accurately as people can. The magic leap from special cases to general concepts during learning gives deep neural networks their power, just as it underlies human reasoning, creativity and the other faculties collectively termed “intelligence.” Experts wonder what it is about deep learning that enables generalization—and to what extent brains apprehend reality in the same way.

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Category: Science