learning about neural networks: free software

Free neural network simulation engines, good for understanding simple cognitive-style networks, abstracting away from the actual reality with all those pesky ion channels and membrane potentials and spikes.

  • Emergent is a workhorse, used by serious neural networks researchers but also useful for learning, in conjunction with an associated neural nets textbook, which is probably good for advanced undergraduates.
  • Brainwave, an Australian product from the University of Queensland, provides some nice little tutorials and you can get into them immediately thanks to them being embedded in the actual web pages. The disadvantage is that after you build a custom network, you can’t save its state and return to it later.
  • Simbrain is a beautiful java app for basic neural net simulation, with an extensive set of lessons to help you, step-by-step, construct and learn about various basic neural network architectures. It has an entirely graphical interface that is well-designed so you’re not overwhelmed by the serious functionality underneath. There’s enough going on that it took a little while to learn how to use, but it was a pleasure to do so. It was perfect for use with my one-hour undergraduate lab/tutorial session for psychology students. I’ve just taken and quickly adapted two of the many lessons, one on autoassociative networks to explain how the brain’s connections can allow it to retrieve an entire memory from a partial cue, and one on Braitenberg vehicles simulating how a mouse might follow an odor trail for cheese. The coolest thing about SimBrain is the virtual world with mice and cheese that lets you simulate actual behavior, and definitely adds to the “playability” fun factor.

Brains, Minds, Media is a new electronic journal with articles about tools like these.

Update: Chart comparing neural network simulators

One thought on “learning about neural networks: free software

  1. […] don’t know much ’bout neural networks? An interactive tutorial Posted December 10, 2008 Filed under: neuroscience, psychology | I’m releasing an interactive tutorial suitable for either individual learning or in the context of a class wherein each student, or pair of students, has a computer. I used it for my third-year psychology university students. Before beginning the 100-minute class, most had little idea how connectionist networks could store memories or compute visually guided action. By the end, they were happily rewiring their networks to encode new memories or accomplish new actions. It’s all made possible by the free, beautiful, and easy-to-use Java-based neural network simulator SimBrain that I blogged earlier. […]

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