Accelerating the Evolution of Convolutional Neural Networks with Node-Level Mutations and Epigenetic Weight Initialization

Travis Desell

This paper examines three generic strategies for improving the performance of neuro-evolution techniques aimed at evolving convolutional neural networks (CNNs). These were implemented as part of the Evolutionary eXploration of Augmenting Convolutional Topologies (EXACT) algorithm. EXACT evolves arbitrary convolutional neural networks (CNNs) with goals of better discovering and understanding new effective architectures of CNNs for machine learning tasks and to potentially automate the process of network design and selection. The strategies examined are node-level mutation operations, epigenetic weight initialization and pooling connections. Results were gathered over the period of a month using a volunteer computing project, where over 225,000 CNNs were trained and evaluated across 16 different EXACT searches. The node mutation operations where shown to dramatically improve evolution rates over traditional edge mutation operations (as used by the NEAT algorithm), and epigenetic weight initialization was shown to further increase the accuracy and generalizability of the trained CNNs. As a negative but interesting result, allowing for pooling connections was shown to degrade the evolution progress. The best trained CNNs reached 99.46% accuracy on the MNIST test data in under 13,500 CNN evaluations -- accuracy comparable with some of the best human designed CNNs.

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