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Online Training Through Time for Spiking Neural Networks

Mingqing Xiao · Qingyan Meng · Zongpeng Zhang · Di He · Zhouchen Lin

Hall J (level 1) #620

Keywords: [ spiking neural networks ] [ online training through time ] [ Neuromorphic Computing ]


Spiking neural networks (SNNs) are promising brain-inspired energy-efficient models. Recent progress in training methods has enabled successful deep SNNs on large-scale tasks with low latency. Particularly, backpropagation through time (BPTT) with surrogate gradients (SG) is popularly used to enable models to achieve high performance in a very small number of time steps. However, it is at the cost of large memory consumption for training, lack of theoretical clarity for optimization, and inconsistency with the online property of biological learning rules and rules on neuromorphic hardware. Other works connect the spike representations of SNNs with equivalent artificial neural network formulation and train SNNs by gradients from equivalent mappings to ensure descent directions. But they fail to achieve low latency and are also not online. In this work, we propose online training through time (OTTT) for SNNs, which is derived from BPTT to enable forward-in-time learning by tracking presynaptic activities and leveraging instantaneous loss and gradients. Meanwhile, we theoretically analyze and prove that the gradients of OTTT can provide a similar descent direction for optimization as gradients from equivalent mapping between spike representations under both feedforward and recurrent conditions. OTTT only requires constant training memory costs agnostic to time steps, avoiding the significant memory costs of BPTT for GPU training. Furthermore, the update rule of OTTT is in the form of three-factor Hebbian learning, which could pave a path for online on-chip learning. With OTTT, it is the first time that the two mainstream supervised SNN training methods, BPTT with SG and spike representation-based training, are connected, and meanwhile it is in a biologically plausible form. Experiments on CIFAR-10, CIFAR-100, ImageNet, and CIFAR10-DVS demonstrate the superior performance of our method on large-scale static and neuromorphic datasets in a small number of time steps. Our code is available at

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