AI Analyzes Gravitational Lenses 10 Million Times Faster

Researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have for the first time shown that neural networks – a form of artificial intelligence – can accurately analyze the complex distortions in spacetime known as gravitational lenses 10 million times faster than traditional methods.

“Analyses that typically take weeks to months to complete, that require the input of experts and that are computationally demanding, can be done by neural nets within a fraction of a second, in a fully automated way and, in principle, on a cell phone’s computer chip,” said postdoctoral fellow Laurence Perreault Levasseur, a co-author of the study.

KIPAC scientists have for the first time used artificial neural networks to analyze complex distortions in spacetime, called gravitational lenses, demonstrating that the method is 10 million times faster than traditional analyses. (Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Nature – Fast automated analysis of strong gravitational lenses with convolutional neural networks

Lightning Fast Complex Analysis

The team at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), a joint institute of SLAC and Stanford, used neural networks to analyze images of strong gravitational lensing, where the image of a faraway galaxy is multiplied and distorted into rings and arcs by the gravity of a massive object, such as a galaxy cluster, that’s closer to us. The distortions provide important clues about how mass is distributed in space and how that distribution changes over time – properties linked to invisible dark matter that makes up 85 percent of all matter in the universe and to dark energy that’s accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Until now this type of analysis has been a tedious process that involves comparing actual images of lenses with a large number of computer simulations of mathematical lensing models. This can take weeks to months for a single lens.

But with the neural networks, the researchers were able to do the same analysis in a few seconds, which they demonstrated using real images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and simulated ones.

To train the neural networks in what to look for, the researchers showed them about half a million simulated images of gravitational lenses for about a day. Once trained, the networks were able to analyze new lenses almost instantaneously with a precision that was comparable to traditional analysis methods. In a separate paper, submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the team reports how these networks can also determine the uncertainties of their analyses.

Prepared for Data Floods of the Future

“The neural networks we tested – three publicly available neural nets and one that we developed ourselves – were able to determine the properties of each lens, including how its mass was distributed and how much it magnified the image of the background galaxy,” said the study’s lead author Yashar Hezaveh, a NASA Hubble postdoctoral fellow at KIPAC.

This goes far beyond recent applications of neural networks in astrophysics, which were limited to solving classification problems, such as determining whether an image shows a gravitational lens or not.

The ability to sift through large amounts of data and perform complex analyses very quickly and in a fully automated fashion could transform astrophysics in a way that is much needed for future sky surveys that will look deeper into the universe – and produce more data – than ever before.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), for example, whose 3.2-gigapixel camera is currently under construction at SLAC, will provide unparalleled views of the universe and is expected to increase the number of known strong gravitational lenses from a few hundred today to tens of thousands.

“We won’t have enough people to analyze all these data in a timely manner with the traditional methods,” Perreault Levasseur said. “Neural networks will help us identify interesting objects and analyze them quickly. This will give us more time to ask the right questions about the universe.”

A Revolutionary Approach

Neural networks are inspired by the architecture of the human brain, in which a dense network of neurons quickly processes and analyzes information.

In the artificial version, the “neurons” are single computational units that are associated with the pixels of the image being analyzed. The neurons are organized into layers, up to hundreds of layers deep. Each layer searches for features in the image. Once the first layer has found a certain feature, it transmits the information to the next layer, which then searches for another feature within that feature, and so on.

“The amazing thing is that neural networks learn by themselves what features to look for,” said KIPAC staff scientist Phil Marshall, a co-author of the paper. “This is comparable to the way small children learn to recognize objects. You don’t tell them exactly what a dog is; you just show them pictures of dogs.”

But in this case, Hezaveh said, “It’s as if they not only picked photos of dogs from a pile of photos, but also returned information about the dogs’ weight, height and age.”


Quantifying image distortions caused by strong gravitational lensing—the formation of multiple images of distant sources due to the deflection of their light by the gravity of intervening structures—and estimating the corresponding matter distribution of these structures (the ‘gravitational lens’) has primarily been performed using maximum likelihood modelling of observations. This procedure is typically time- and resource-consuming, requiring sophisticated lensing codes, several data preparation steps, and finding the maximum likelihood model parameters in a computationally expensive process with downhill optimizers1. Accurate analysis of a single gravitational lens can take up to a few weeks and requires expert knowledge of the physical processes and methods involved. Tens of thousands of new lenses are expected to be discovered with the upcoming generation of ground and space surveys2, 3. Here we report the use of deep convolutional neural networks to estimate lensing parameters in an extremely fast and automated way, circumventing the difficulties that are faced by maximum likelihood methods. We also show that the removal of lens light can be made fast and automated using independent component analysis4 of multi-filter imaging data. Our networks can recover the parameters of the ‘singular isothermal ellipsoid’ density profile5, which is commonly used to model strong lensing systems, with an accuracy comparable to the uncertainties of sophisticated models but about ten million times faster: 100 systems in approximately one second on a single graphics processing unit. These networks can provide a way for non-experts to obtain estimates of lensing parameters for large samples of data.

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