bookmark_borderThe Truth About the [Not So] Universal Approximation Theorem

Computation is usually conceptualized in terms of input/output functions. For instance, to compute the square root of a number is to somehow solve the function that takes a number as an input and outputs its square root. It is commonly stated that feed-forward neural networks are “universal approximators” meaning that, in theory, any function can be approximated by a feed-forward neural network. Here are some examples of this idea being articulated:

“One of the most striking facts about [feed-forward] neural networks is that they can compute any function at all.”

Neural Networks and Deep Learning, Ch. 4, Michael Nielsen

“In summary, a feed-forward network with a single layer is sufficient to represent any function [to an arbitrary degree of accuracy],…”

– Deep Learning (Section 6.4.1 Universal Approximation Properties and Depth), Ian Goodfellow

“…but can we solve anything? Can we stave off another neural winter coming from there being certain functions that we cannot approximate? Actually, yes. The problem of not being able to approximate some function is not going to come back.”

Course on Deep Learning, Universal Approximation Theorem, Konrad Kording

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bookmark_borderBreaking Free from Neural Networks and Dynamical Systems

This blog post is written as a dialogue between two imaginary characters, one of them being myself (H) and the other a stubborn straw man (S). It is broken into four parts: the dogma, the insight, the decoy, and the clues. If you do not feel like reading the whole thing, you can skip to part 4; it contains a summary of the other parts.

[image adapted from Song et al. 2016]
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bookmark_borderCan a finite physical device be Turing-equivalent?

If you believe in the following, I am going to try to change your mind:

“Turing machines aren’t realistic. They need infinite memory so they can’t be implemented. Any real computing device is limited in its memory capacity and, therefore, equivalent to a finite state machine.”

Cartoon of a Turing Machine by Tom Dunne 2002
Cartoon of a Turing Machine by Tom Dunne, 2002

This is a fairly commonly held view. I used to believe in it myself, but had always found it deeply unsatisfying. After all, modern-day computers have limited memory capacity but closely resemble Turing machines. And Turing’s abstract formulation arguably led to the digital revolution of the 20th century. How, then, can the Turing machine be a physically irrelevant mathematical abstraction? If all of our computers and devices are of the weaker class of computers, namely, finite state machines, why do they have to look so much like Turing machines?

It is important to clarify this, especially for neuroscience and computational biology. If we think of Turing-equivalence as this abstract level of computation that is impossible to physically achieve, then we block out classical insights from the theory of computation and cannot even begin to ask the right questions. (I recently wrote a manuscript asking the question “where is life’s Turing-equivalent computer?” and showed that a set of plausible molecular operations on RNA molecules is sufficient to achieve Turing-equivalent computation in biology).

It took a good amount of reading and thinking to finally understand the meaning of Turing-equivalence. I will explain what I believe to be the only consistent way of looking at this issue. Here is the short version:

When we say Turing machines require “unbounded memory”, what we mean is that memory cannot be bounded by the systems descriptor, not that it cannot be bounded by other things such as the laws of physics or resource constraints. Turing-equivalence only requires a system in which memory usage grows, not one in which memory is infinite.

Below I explain precisely what all that means. I will try to convince you that this is the only consistent way of looking at this and that Turing, himself, shared this perspective.

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