A Comparison Between Belief Networks And Neural Networks

Given the close similarity between belief networks (particularly the adaptive variety) and neural networks, a detailed comparison is in order. The two formalisms can be compared as representation systems, inference systems, and learning systems. 

Both neural networks and belief networks are attribute-based representations. Both handle discrete and continuous inputs, although algorithms for handling continuous variables in belief networks are less developed. The principal difference is that belief networks are localized representations, whereas neural networks are distributed representations. 

Nodes in belief networks represent propositions with well-defined semantics and well-defined probabilistic relationships to other propositions. Units in neural networks, on the other hand, typically do not represent specific propositions. Even if they did, the calculations carried by the network do not treat propositions in any semantically meaningful way. In practical terms, this means that humans can neither construct nor understand neural network representations. The well-defined semantics of belief networks also means that they can be constructed automatically by programs that manipulate first-order representations. Another representational difference is that belief network variables have two dimensions of "activation"—the range of values for the proposition, and the probability assigned to each of those values. 

The outputs of a neural network can be viewed as either the probability of a Boolean variable, or an exact value for a continuous variable, but neural networks cannot handle both probabilities and multivalued or continuous variables simultaneously. As inference mechanisms—once they have been trained—feedforward neural networks can execute in linear time, whereas general belief network inference is NP-hard. On closer inspection, this is not as clear an advantage as it might seem, because a neural network would in some cases have to be exponentially larger in order to represent the same input/output mapping as a belief network (else we would be able to solve hard problems in polynomial time). 

Practically speaking, any neural network that can be trained is small enough so that inference is fast, whereas it is not hard to construct belief networks that take a long time to run. One other important aspect of belief networks is their flexibility, in the sense that at any time any subset of the variables can be treated as inputs, and any other subset as outputs, whereas feedforward neural networks have fixed inputs and outputs. With respect to learning, a comparison is difficult because adaptive probabilistic networks (APNs) are a very recent development. One can expect the time per iteration of an APN to be slower, because it involves an inference process. 

On the other hand, a human (or another part of the agent) can provide prior knowledge to the APN learning process in the form of the network structure and/or conditional probability values. Since this reduces the hypothesis space, it should allow the APN to learn from fewer examples. Also, the ability of belief networks to represent propositions locally may mean that they converge faster to a correct representation of a domain that has local structure—that is,, in which each proposition is directly affected by only a small number of other propositions.

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