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Neural networks are a series of algorithms that endeavours to recognize underlying relationships in a set of data through a process that mimics the way the human brain operates. Neural networks can adapt to changing input so the network generates the best possible result without needing to redesign the output criteria.

A typical brain contains something like 100 billion miniscule cells called neurons. Each neuron is made up of a cell body with a number of connections coming off it: numerous dendrites (the cell's inputs—carrying information toward the cell body) and a single axon (the cell's output—carrying information away). Neurons are so tiny that you could pack about 100 of their cell bodies into a single millimetre. It's also worth noting, briefly in passing, that neurons make up only 10 percent of all the cells in the brain; the rest are glial cells, also called neuroglia, that support and protect the neurons and feed them with energy that allows them to work and grow. Inside a computer, the equivalent to a brain cell is a nanoscopically tiny switching device called a transistor. The latest, cutting-edge microprocessors contain over 2 billion transistors; even a basic microprocessor has about 50 million transistors, all packed onto an integrated circuit just 25mm square.

 

That's where the comparison between computers and brains begins and ends, because the two things are completely different. It's not just that computers are cold metal boxes stuffed full of binary numbers, while brains are warm, living, things packed with thoughts, feelings, and memories. The real difference is that computers and brains "think" in completely different ways. The transistors in a computer are wired in relatively simple, serial chains, whereas the neurons in a brain are densely interconnected in complex, parallel ways, as each one is connected to perhaps 10,000 of its neighbours.

 

This essential structural difference between computers and brains is what makes them "think" so very differently. Computers are perfectly designed for storing vast amounts of meaningless (to them) information and rearranging it in any number of ways according to precise instructions (programs) we feed into them in advance. Brains, on the other hand, learn slowly, by a more roundabout method, often taking months or years to make complete sense of something really complex. But, unlike computers, they can spontaneously put information together in astounding new ways recognizing original patterns, forging connections, and seeing the things they've learned in a completely different light.

 

That's where neural networks come in.

Artificial neural networks (ANN) are computing systems vaguely inspired by the biological neural networks that constitute animal brains. The neural network itself isn't an algorithm, but rather a framework for many different machine learning algorithms to work together and process complex data inputs. Such systems "learn" to perform tasks by considering examples, generally without being programmed with any task-specific rules.

The original goal of the ANN approach was to solve problems in the same way that a human brain would. However, over time, attention moved to performing specific tasks, leading to deviations from biology. Artificial neural networks have been used on a variety of tasks, including computer vision, speech recognition, machine translation, social network filtering, playing board and video games and medical diagnosis.

A typical neural network has anything from a few dozen to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of artificial neurons called units arranged in a series of layers, each of which connects to the layers on either side. Some of them, known as input units, are designed to receive various forms of information from the outside world that the network will attempt to learn about, recognize, or otherwise process. Other units sit on the opposite side of the network and signal how it responds to the information it's learned; those are known as output units. In between the input units and output units are one or more layers of hidden units, which, together, form the majority of the artificial brain. Most neural networks are fully connected, which means each hidden unit and each output unit is connected to every unit in the layers either side. The connections between one unit and another are represented by a number called a weight, which can be either positive (if one unit excites another) or negative (if one unit suppresses or inhibits another). The higher the weight, the more influence one unit has on another.

Information flows through a neural network in two ways. When it's learning (being trained) or operating normally (after being trained), patterns of information are fed into the network via the input units, which trigger the layers of hidden units, and these in turn arrive at the output units. This common design is called a feedforward network. Not all units "fire" all the time. Each unit receives inputs from the units to its left, and the inputs are multiplied by the weights of the connections they travel along. Every unit adds up all the inputs it receives in this way and if the sum is more than a certain threshold value, the unit "fires" and triggers the units it's connected to.

 

For a neural network to learn, there has to be an element of feedback involved—just as children learn by being told what they're doing right or wrong. In fact, we all use feedback, all the time. Think back to when you first learned to play a game like ten-pin bowling. As you picked up the heavy ball and rolled it down the alley, your brain watched how quickly the ball moved and the line it followed, and noted how close you came to knocking down the skittles. Next time it was your turn, you remembered what you'd done wrong before, modified your movements accordingly, and hopefully threw the ball a bit better. So you used feedback to compare the outcome you wanted with what actually happened, figured out the difference between the two, and used that to change what you did next time. The bigger the difference between the intended and actual outcome, the more radically you would have altered your moves.

 

Neural networks learn things in exactly the same way, typically by a feedback process called backpropagation. This involves comparing the output a network produces with the output it was meant to produce, and using the difference between them to modify the weights of the connections between the units in the network, working from the output units through the hidden units to the input units—going backward, in other words. In time, backpropagation causes the network to learn, reducing the difference between actual and intended output to the point where the two exactly coincide, so the network figures things out exactly as it should.

 

Once the network has been trained with enough learning examples, it reaches a point where you can present it with an entirely new set of inputs it's never seen before and see how it responds. For example, suppose you've been teaching a network by showing it lots of pictures of chairs and tables, represented in some appropriate way it can understand, and telling it whether each one is a chair or a table. After showing it, let's say, 25 different chairs and 25 different tables, you feed it a picture of some new design it's not encountered before—let's say a chaise longue—and see what happens. Depending on how you've trained it, it'll attempt to categorize the new example as either a chair or a table, generalizing on the basis of its past experience—just like a human.

 

That doesn't mean to say a neural network can just "look" at pieces of furniture and instantly respond to them in meaningful ways; it's not behaving like a person. Consider the example we've just given: the network is not actually looking at pieces of furniture. The inputs to a network are essentially binary numbers: each input unit is either switched on or switched off. So if you had five input units, you could feed in information about five different characteristics of different chairs using binary (yes/no) answers. The questions might be 1) Does it have a back? 2) Does it have a top? 3) Does it have soft upholstery? 4) Can you sit on it comfortably for long periods of time? 5) Can you put lots of things on top of it? A typical chair would then present as Yes, No, Yes, Yes, No or 10110 in binary, while a typical table might be No, Yes, No, No, Yes or 01001. So, during the learning phase, the network is simply looking at lots of numbers like 10110 and 01001 and learning that some mean chair (which might be an output of 1) while others mean table (an output of 0).

Below, you can find 3 episodes prepared by 3BLUE1BROWN, explaining neural networks and deep learning with visual demonstrations. We find them extremely useful and suggest you to go through these videos in order to gain a comprehensive understanding about neural networks.

This is a brief introduction to neural networks. In the next chapter, we will go through a couple of practical neural network examples that you can try with Nova.