Exemplary natural images explain CNN activations better than state-of-the-art feature visualization


Feature visualizations such as synthetic maximally activating images are a widely used explanation method to better understand the information processing of convolutional neural networks (CNNs). At the same time, there are concerns that these visualizations might not accurately represent CNNs’ inner workings. Here, we measure how much extremely activating images help humans to predict CNN activations. Using a well-controlled psychophysical paradigm, we compare the informativeness of synthetic images by Olah et al. (2017) with a simple baseline visualization, namely exemplary natural images that also strongly activate a specific feature map. Given either synthetic or natural reference images, human participants choose which of two query images leads to strong positive activation. The experiments are designed to maximize participants’ performance, and are the first to probe intermediate instead of final layer representations. We find that synthetic images indeed provide helpful information about feature map activations ( accuracy; chance would be ). However, natural images - originally intended as a baseline - outperform synthetic images by a wide margin (). Additionally, participants are faster and more confident for natural images, whereas subjective impressions about the interpretability of the feature visualizations are mixed. The higher informativeness of natural images holds across most layers, for both expert and lay participants as well as for hand- and randomly-picked feature visualizations. Even if only a single reference image is given, synthetic images provide less information than natural images ( vs …

Matthias Bethge
Matthias Bethge
Professor for Computational Neuroscience and Machine Learning & Director of the Tübingen AI Center

Matthias Bethge is Professor for Computational Neuroscience and Machine Learning at the University of Tübingen and director of the Tübingen AI Center, a joint center between Tübingen University and MPI for Intelligent Systems that is part of the German AI strategy.