Menoua Keshishian, Samuel Norman-Haignere, Nima Mesgarani
Natural signals such as speech are hierarchically structured across many different timescales, spanning tens (e.g., phonemes) to hundreds (e.g., words) of milliseconds, each of which is highly variable and context-dependent. While deep neural networks (DNNs) excel at recognizing complex patterns from natural signals, relatively little is known about how DNNs flexibly integrate across multiple timescales. Here, we show how a recently developed method for studying temporal integration in biological neural systems – the temporal context invariance (TCI) paradigm – can be used to understand temporal integration in DNNs. The method is simple: we measure responses to a large number of stimulus segments presented in two different contexts and estimate the smallest segment duration needed to achieve a context invariant response. We applied our method to understand how the popular DeepSpeech2 model learns to integrate across time in speech. We find that nearly all of the model units, even in recurrent layers, have a compact integration window within which stimuli substantially alter the response and outside of which stimuli have little effect. We show that training causes these integration windows to shrink at early layers and expand at higher layers, creating a hierarchy of integration windows across the network. Moreover, by measuring integration windows for time-stretched/compressed speech, we reveal a transition point, midway through the trained network, where integration windows become yoked to the duration of stimulus structures (e.g., phonemes or words) rather than absolute time. Similar phenomena were observed in a purely recurrent and purely convolutional network although structure-yoked integration was more prominent in the recurrent network. These findings suggest that deep speech recognition systems use a common motif to encode the hierarchical structure of speech: integrating across short, time-yoked windows at early layers and long, structure-yoked windows at later layers. Our method provides a straightforward and general-purpose toolkit for understanding temporal integration in black-box machine learning models.