This year’s NeurIPS 2021 I present one full paper and a workshop paper on meta learning gradient-free & general-purpose learning algorithms. Can the backpropagation algorithm be encoded purely in the recurrent dynamics of RNNs? How do we automatically discover novel general-purpose learning algorithms that do not need gradient descent? How can symmetries help generalization of reinforcement learning algorithms? Watch the videos below to find out, or read the full research papers. This is a continuation of my line of research in general-purpose meta learning.

ArXiv page on VSML Meta Learning Backpropagation And Improving It
(NeurIPS 2021)

Many concepts have been proposed for meta learning with neural networks (NNs), e.g., NNs that learn to reprogram fast weights, Hebbian plasticity, learned learning rules, and meta recurrent NNs. Our Variable Shared Meta Learning (VSML) unifies the above and demonstrates that simple weight-sharing and sparsity in an NN is sufficient to express powerful learning algorithms (LAs) in a reusable fashion. A simple implementation of VSML where the weights of a neural network are replaced by tiny LSTMs allows for implementing the backpropagation LA solely by running in forward-mode. It can even meta learn new LAs that differ from online backpropagation and generalize to datasets outside of the meta training distribution without explicit gradient calculation. Introspection reveals that our meta learned LAs learn through fast association in a way that is qualitatively different from gradient descent.

ArXiv page on SymLA Introducing Symmetries to Black Box Meta Reinforcement Learning
(NeurIPS 2021 Meta Learning Workshop)

Meta reinforcement learning (RL) attempts to discover new RL algorithms automatically from environment interaction. In so-called black-box approaches, the policy and the learning algorithm are jointly represented by a single neural network. These methods are very flexible, but they tend to underperform in terms of generalisation to new, unseen environments. In this paper, we explore the role of symmetries in meta-generalisation. We show that a recent successful meta RL approach that meta-learns an objective for backpropagation-based learning exhibits certain symmetries (specifically the reuse of the learning rule, and invariance to input and output permutations) that are not present in typical black-box meta RL systems. We hypothesise that these symmetries can play an important role in meta-generalisation. Building off recent work in black-box supervised meta learning, we develop a black-box meta RL system that exhibits these same symmetries. We show through careful experimentation that incorporating these symmetries can lead to algorithms with a greater ability to generalise to unseen action & observation spaces, tasks, and environments.