Posted by David Ha, Staff Research Scientist and Yujin Tang, Research Software Engineer, Google Research, Tokyo
“The brain is able to use information coming from the skin as if it were coming from the eyes. We don’t see with the eyes or hear with the ears, these are just the receptors, seeing and hearing in fact goes on in the brain.”
People have the amazing ability to use one sensory modality (e.g., touch) to supply environmental information normally gathered by another sense (e.g., vision). This adaptive ability, called sensory substitution, is a phenomenon well-known to neuroscience. While difficult adaptations — such as adjusting to seeing things upside-down, learning to ride a “backwards” bicycle, or learning to “see” by interpreting visual information emitted from a grid of electrodes placed on one’s tongue — require anywhere from weeks, months or even years to attain mastery, people are able to eventually adjust to sensory substitutions.
<!– –> Examples of Sensory Substitution. Left: Tongue Display Unit (Maris and Bach-y-Rita, 2001; Image: Kaczmarek, 2011). Right: “Upside down goggles” initially conceived by Erismann and Kohler in 1931. (Image Wikipedia).
In contrast, most neural networks are not able to adapt to sensory substitutions at all. For instance, most reinforcement learning (RL) agents require their inputs to be in a pre-specified format, or else they will fail. They expect fixed-size inputs and assume that each element of the input carries a precise meaning, such as the pixel intensity at a specified location, or state information, like position or velocity. In popular RL benchmark tasks (e.g., Ant or Cart-pole), an agent trained using current RL algorithms will fail if its sensory inputs are changed or if the agent is fed additional noisy inputs that are unrelated to the task at hand.
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