Hand-crafting effective and efficient structures for recurrent neural networks (RNNs) is a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process. To address this challenge, we propose a novel neuro-evolution algorithm based on ant colony optimization (ACO), called Ant-based Neural Topology Search (ANTS), for directly optimizing RNN topologies. The procedure selects from multiple modern recurrent cell types such as ∆-RNN, GRU, LSTM, MGU and UGRNN cells, as well as recurrent connections which may span multiple layers and/or steps of time. In order to introduce an inductive bias that encourages the formation of sparser synaptic connectivity patterns, we investigate several variations of the core algorithm. We do so primarily by formulating different functions that drive the underlying pheromone simulation process (which mimic L1 and L2 regularization in standard machine learning) as well as by introducing ant agents with specialized roles (inspired by how real ant colonies operate), i.e., explorer ants that construct the initial feed forward structure and social ants which select nodes from the feed forward connections to subsequently craft recurrent memory structures. We also incorporate communal intelligence, where best weights are shared by the ant colony for weight initialization, reducing the number of backpropagation epochs required to locally train candidate RNNs, speeding up the neuro-evolution process. Our results demonstrate that the sparser RNNs evolved by ANTS significantly outperform traditional one and two layer architectures consisting of modern memory cells, as well as the well-known NEAT algorithm. Furthermore, we improve upon prior state-of-the-art results on the time series dataset utilized in our experiments.

Date of creation, presentation, or exhibit



This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in EvoApplications 2020: Applications of Evolutionary Computation. The final authenticated version is available online at:

Document Type

Conference Paper

Department, Program, or Center

Software Engineering (GCCIS)


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