A manifold learning perspective on representation learning: Learning decoder and representations without an encoder

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Autoencoders are commonly used in representation learning. They consist of an encoder and a decoder, which provide a straightforward method to map n-dimensional data in input space to a lower m-dimensional representation space and back. The decoder itself defines an m-dimensional manifold in input space. Inspired by manifold learning, we showed that the decoder can be trained on its own by learning the representations of the training samples along with the decoder weights using gradient descent. A sum-of-squares loss then corresponds to optimizing the manifold to have the smallest Euclidean distance to the training samples, and similarly for other loss functions. We derived expressions for the number of samples needed to specify the encoder and decoder and showed that the decoder generally requires much fewer training samples to be well-specified compared to the encoder. We discuss the training of autoencoders in this perspective and relate it to previous work in the field that uses noisy training examples and other types of regularization. On the natural image data sets MNIST and CIFAR10, we demonstrated that the decoder is much better suited to learn a low-dimensional representation, especially when trained on small data sets. Using simulated gene regulatory data, we further showed that the decoder alone leads to better generalization and meaningful representations. Our approach of training the decoder alone facilitates representation learning even on small data sets and can lead to improved training of autoencoders. We hope that the simple analyses presented will also contribute to an improved conceptual understanding of representation learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1403
Issue number11
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

    Research areas

  • Autoencoders, Manifold learning, Neural networks, Representation learning

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