Skip to main content

Backpropagation at the Infinitesimal Inference Limit of Energy−Based Models: Unifying Predictive Coding‚ Equilibrium Propagation‚ and Contrastive Hebbian Learning

Beren Millidge‚ Yuhang Song‚ Tommaso Salvatori‚ Thomas Lukasiewicz and Rafal Bogacz


How the brain performs credit assignment is a fundamental unsolved problem in neuroscience. Many `biologically plausible' algorithms have been proposed, which compute gradients that approximate those computed by backpropagation (BP), and which operate in ways that more closely satisfy the constraints imposed by neural circuitry. Many such algorithms utilize the framework of energy-based models (EBMs), in which all free variables in the model are optimized to minimize a global energy function. However, in the literature, these algorithms exist in isolation and no unified theory exists linking them together. Here, we provide a comprehensive theory of the conditions under which EBMs can approximate BP, which lets us unify many of the BP approximation results in the literature (namely, predictive coding, equilibrium propagation, and contrastive Hebbian learning) and demonstrate that their approximation to BP arises from a simple and general mathematical property of EBMs at free-phase equilibrium. This property can then be exploited in different ways with different energy functions, and these specific choices yield a family of BP-approximating algorithms, which both includes the known results in the literature and can be used to derive new ones.

Book Title
Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Learning Representations‚ ICLR 2023‚ Kigali‚ Rwanda‚ 1–5 May 2023