Unsupervised deep learning identifies semantic disentanglement in single inferotemporal neurons

Deep supervised neural networks trained to classify objects have emerged as popular models of computation in the primate ventral stream. These models represent information with a high-dimensional distributed population code, implying that inferotemporal (IT) responses are also too complex to interpret at the single-neuron level. We challenge this view by modelling neural responses to faces in the macaque IT with a deep unsupervised generative model, $\beta$-VAE. Unlike deep classifiers, $\beta$-VAE ``disentangles'' sensory data into interpretable latent factors, such as gender or hair length. We found a remarkable correspondence between the generative factors discovered by the model and those coded by single IT neurons. Moreover, we were able to reconstruct face images using the signals from just a handful of cells. This suggests that the ventral visual stream may be optimising the disentangling objective, producing a neural code that is low-dimensional and semantically interpretable at the single-unit level.

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