Are training trajectories of deep single-spike and deep ReLU network equivalent?

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Communication by binary and sparse spikes is a key factor for the energy efficiency of biological brains. However, training deep spiking neural networks (SNNs) with backpropagation is harder than with artificial neural networks (ANNs), which is puzzling given that recent theoretical results provide exact mapping algorithms from ReLU to time-to-first-spike (TTFS) SNNs. Building upon these results, we analyze in theory and in simulation the learning dynamics of TTFS-SNNs. Our analysis highlights that even when an SNN can be mapped exactly to a ReLU network, it cannot always be robustly trained by gradient descent. The reason for that is the emergence of a specific instance of the vanishing-or-exploding gradient problem leading to a bias in the gradient descent trajectory in comparison with the equivalent ANN. After identifying this issue we derive a generic solution for the network initialization and SNN parameterization which guarantees that the SNN can be trained as robustly as its ANN counterpart. Our theoretical findings are illustrated in practice on image classification datasets. Our method achieves the same accuracy as deep ConvNets on CIFAR10 and enables fine-tuning on the much larger PLACES365 dataset without loss of accuracy compared to the ANN. We argue that the combined perspective of conversion and fine-tuning with robust gradient descent in SNN will be decisive to optimize SNNs for hardware implementations needing low latency and resilience to noise and quantization.