Variational Neural Cellular Automata

Rasmus Berg Palm, Miguel Gonzalez Duque, Shyam Sudhakaran, Sebastian Risi

Research output: Journal Article or Conference Article in JournalConference articleResearchpeer-review


In nature, the process of cellular growth and differentiation has lead to an amazing diversity of organisms --- algae, starfish, giant sequoia, tardigrades, and orcas are all created by the same generative process.
Inspired by the incredible diversity of this biological generative process, we propose a generative model, the Variational Neural Cellular Automata (VNCA), which is loosely inspired by the biological processes of cellular growth and differentiation. Unlike previous related works, the VNCA is a proper probabilistic generative model, and we evaluate it according to best practices. We find that the VNCA learns to reconstruct samples well and that despite its relatively few parameters and simple local-only communication, the VNCA can learn to generate a large variety of output from information encoded in a common vector format. While there is a significant gap to the current state-of-the-art in terms of generative modeling performance, we show that the VNCA can learn a purely self-organizing generative process of data. Additionally, the self-organizing nature bestows the VNCA with some inherent robustness against perturbations in the early stages of growth.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Conference on Learning Representations 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Cellular growth
  • Differentiation
  • Probabilistic generative model
  • Variational Neural Cellular Automata
  • Self-organizing systems


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