Neural networks: what are the alternatives?

In this article, we will see some alternatives to neural networks that can be used to solve the same types of machine learning tasks that they do.

What are neural networks

Neural networks are by far the most popular machine learning method. They are capable of automatically learning hidden features from input data prior to computing an output value, and established algorithms exist for finding the optimal internal parameters (weights and biases) based on a training dataset.

The basic architecture is the following. The building blocks are perceptrons, which take values as input, calculate a weighed sum of those values and apply a non-linear activation function to the result. The output is then either fed into perceptrons of a next layer, or it is sent to the output if that was the last layer.

The basic architecture of a neural network. Blue circles are perceptrons.

This architecture is directly inspired on the workings of a human brain. Combined with a neural network’s ability to learn from data, a strong association between this machine learning method and the notion of artificial intelligence can be drawn.

Alternatives to neural networks

Despite being so popular, neural networks are not the only machine learning method available. Several alternatives exist, and in many contexts these alternatives may perform better than them.

Some noteworthy alternatives are the following:

  • Random forests, which consist of an ensemble of decision trees, each trained with a random subset of the training dataset. This method corrects a decision tree’s tendency to overfit the input data.
  • Support vector machines, which attempt to map the input data into a space where it is linearly separable into different categories.
  • k-nearest neighbors algorithm (KNN), which looks for the values in the training dataset that are closest to a new input, and combines the target variables associated to those nearest neighbors into a new prediction.
  • Symbolic regression, a technique which tries to find explicit mathematical formulas that connect the input variables to the target variable.

A noteworthy alternative

Among the alternatives above, all but symbolic regression involve implicit computations under the hood that cannot be easily interpreted. With symbolic regression, the model is an explicit mathematical formula that can be written on a sheet of paper, making this technique an alternative to neural networks of particular interest.

Here is how it works: given a set of base functions, for instance sin(x), exp(x), addition, multiplication, etc, a training algorithm tries to find the combinations of those functions that best predict the output variable taking as input the input variables. It is important that the formulas encountered are the simplest ones possible, so the algorithm will automatically discard a formula if it finds a simpler one that performs just as well.

Here is an example of output for a symbolic regression optimization, in which a set of formulas of increasing complexity were found that describe the input dataset. The symbolic regression package used is called TuringBot, a desktop application that can be downloaded for free.

Formulas found with a symbolic regression optimization.

This method very much resembles a scientist looking for mathematical laws that explain data, like Kepler did with data on the positions of planets in the sky to find his laws of planetary motion.


In this article, we have seen some alternatives to neural networks based on completely different ideas, including for instance symbolic regression which generates models that are explicit and more explainable than a neural network. Exploring different models is very valuable, because they may perform differently in different particular contexts.

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A free AI software for PC

If you are interested in solving AI problems and would like an easy to use desktop software that yields state of the art results, you might like TuringBot. In this article, we will show you how it can be used to easily solve classification and regression problems, and explain the methodology that it uses, which is called symbolic regression.

The software

TuringBot is a desktop application that runs on both Windows and Linux, and that can be downloaded for free from the official website. This is what its interface looks like:

The interface of TuringBot.

The usage is simple: you load your data in CSV or TXT format through the interface, select which column should be predicted and which columns should be used as input, and start the search. The program will look for explicit mathematical formulas that predict this target variable, and show the results in the Solutions box.

Symbolic regression

The name of this technique, which looks for explicit formulas that solve AI problems, is symbolic regression. It is capable of solving the same problems as neural networks, but in an explicit way that does not involve black box computations.

Think of what Kepler did when he extracted his laws of planetary motion from observations. He looked for algebraic equations that could explain this data, and found timeless patterns that are taught to this day in schools. What TuringBot does is something similar to that, but millions of times faster than a human could ever do.

An important point in symbolic regression is that it is not sufficient for a model to be accurate — it also has to be simple. This is why TuringBot’s algorithm tries to find the best formulas of all possible sizes simultaneously, discarding larger formulas that do not perform better than simpler alternatives.

The problems that it can solve

Some examples of problems that can be solved by the program are the following:

  • Regression problems, in which a continuous target variable should be predicted. See here a tutorial in which we use the program to recover a mathematical formula without previous knowledge of what that formula was.
  • Classification problems, in which the goal is to classify inputs into two or more different categories. The rationale of solving this kind of problem using symbolic regression is to represent different categorical variables as different integer numbers, and run the optimization with “classification accuracy” as the search metric (this can easily be selected through the interface). In this article, we teach how to use the program to classify the Iris dataset.
  • Classification of rare events, in which a classification task must be solved on highly imbalanced datasets. The logic is similar to that of a regular classification problem, but in this case a special metric called F1 score should be used (also available in TuringBot). In this article, we found a formula that successfully classified credit card frauds on a real-world dataset that is highly imbalanced.

Getting TuringBot

If you liked the concept of TuringBot, you can download it for free from the official website. There you can also find the official documentation, with more information about the search metrics that are available, the input file formats and the various features that the program offers.

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A machine learning software for data science

Data science is becoming more and more widespread, pushed by companies that are finding that very valuable and actionable information can be extracted from their databases.

It can be challenging to develop useful models from raw data. Here we will introduce a tool that makes it very easy to develop state of the art models from any dataset.

What is TuringBot

TuringBot is a desktop machine learning software. It runs on both Windows and Linux, and what it does is generate models that predict some target variable taking as input one or more input variables. It does that through a technique called symbolic regression. This is what its interface looks like:

TuringBot’s interface.

The idea of symbolic regression is to search over the space of all possible mathematical formulas for the ones that best connect the input variables to the target variable, while trying to keep those formulas as simple as possible. The target variable can be anything: for instance, it can represent different categorical variables as different integer numbers, allowing the program to solve classification problems, or it can be a regular continuous variable.

Machine learning with TuringBot

The usage of TuringBot is very straightforward. All you have to do is save your data in CSV or TXT format, with one variable per column, and load this input file through the program’s interface.

Once the data is loaded, you can select the target variable and which variables should be used as input, as well as the search metric, and then start the search. Several search metrics are available, including RMS error, mean error and classification accuracy. A list of formulas encountered so far will be shown in real time, ordered by complexity. Those formulas can be easily exported as Python, C or text from the interface:

Some solutions found by TuringBot. They can readily be exported to common programming languages.

Most machine learning methods are black boxes, which carry out complex computations under the hood before giving a result. This is how neural networks and random forests work, for instance. A great advantage of TuringBot over these methods is that the models that it generates are very explicit, allowing some understanding to be gained into the data. This turns data science into something much more similar to natural science and its search for mathematical laws that explain the world.

How to get the software

If you are interested in trying TuringBot on your own data, you can download it for free from the official website. There you can also find the official documentation, with detailed information about all the features and parameters of the software. Many engineers and data scientists are already making use of the software to find hidden patterns in their data.

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