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An optimized solution for face recognition

When artificial intelligence is tasked with visually identifying objects and faces, it assigns specific components of its network to face recognition — just like the human brain.
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Photo of a woman's face with reference points connected by lines
Neuroscientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute have found that a computational network trained to identify faces and other objects discovers a surprisingly brain-like strategy to sort them all out.
Visualization of the preferred stimulus for example face-ranked filters
Visualization of preferred stimulus for example face-ranked filters. While filters in early layers (e.g., Conv5) were maximally activated by simple features, filters responded to features that appear somewhat like face parts (e.g., nose and eyes) in mid-level layers (e.g., Conv9) and appear to represent faces in a more holistic manner in late convolutional layers.
Image courtesy of the Kanwisher lab.

The human brain seems to care a lot about faces. It’s dedicated a specific area to identifying them, and the neurons there are so good at their job that most of us can readily recognize thousands of individuals. With artificial intelligence, computers can now recognize faces with a similar efficiency — and neuroscientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research have found that a computational network trained to identify faces and other objects discovers a surprisingly brain-like strategy to sort them all out.

The finding, reported March 16 in Science Advances, suggests that the millions of years of evolution that have shaped circuits in the human brain have optimized our system for facial recognition.

“The human brain’s solution is to segregate the processing of faces from the processing of objects,” explains Katharina Dobs, who led the study as a postdoc in the lab of McGovern investigator Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. The artificial network that she trained did the same. “And that’s the same solution that we hypothesize any system that’s trained to recognize faces and to categorize objects would find,” she adds.

“These two completely different systems have figured out what a — if not the — good solution is. And that feels very profound,” says Kanwisher.

Functionally specific brain regions

More than 20 years ago, Kanwisher and her colleagues discovered a small spot in the brain’s temporal lobe that responds specifically to faces. This region, which they named the fusiform face area, is one of many brain regions Kanwisher and others have found that are dedicated to specific tasks, such as the detection of written words, the perception of vocal songs, and understanding language.

Kanwisher says that as she has explored how the human brain is organized, she has always been curious about the reasons for that organization. Does the brain really need special machinery for facial recognition and other functions? “‘Why questions’ are very difficult in science,” she says. But with a sophisticated type of machine learning called a deep neural network, her team could at least find out how a different system would handle a similar task.

Dobs, who is now a research group leader at Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany, assembled hundreds of thousands of images with which to train a deep neural network in face and object recognition. The collection included the faces of more than 1,700 different people and hundreds of different kinds of objects, from chairs to cheeseburgers. All of these were presented to the network, with no clues about which was which. “We never told the system that some of those are faces, and some of those are objects. So it’s basically just one big task,” Dobs says. “It needs to recognize a face identity, as well as a bike or a pen.”

As the program learned to identify the objects and faces, it organized itself into an information-processing network with that included units specifically dedicated to face recognition. Like the brain, this specialization occurred during the later stages of image processing. In both the brain and the artificial network, early steps in facial recognition involve more general vision processing machinery, and final stages rely on face-dedicated components.

It’s not known how face-processing machinery arises in a developing brain, but based on their findings, Kanwisher and Dobs say networks don’t necessarily require an innate face-processing mechanism to acquire that specialization. “We didn’t build anything face-ish into our network,” Kanwisher says. “The networks managed to segregate themselves without being given a face-specific nudge.”

Kanwisher says it was thrilling seeing the deep neural network segregate itself into separate parts for face and object recognition. “That’s what we’ve been looking at in the brain for 20-some years,” she says. “Why do we have a separate system for face recognition in the brain? This tells me it is because that is what an optimized solution looks like.”

Now, she is eager to use deep neural nets to ask similar questions about why other brain functions are organized the way they are. “We have a new way to ask why the brain is organized the way it is,” she says. “How much of the structure we see in human brains will arise spontaneously by training networks to do comparable tasks?”

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