## Neural networks fundamentals with Python – subtleties

In the fifth article of this short series we will be handling some subtleties that we overlooked in our experiment to classify handwritten digits from the MNIST dataset.

The purpose of this article is to go over the code we have written so far and, in particular, the code we wrote in the previous article, and fix a couple of little inconsistencies that are related to some subtleties I overlooked in the previous articles.

# Interpreting outputs as probabilities

In the article where we classified handwritten digits there was a point in which we had to create the target column vector outputs for the images of the digits: we only knew what digit each image referred to, we didn't have the column vector we wanted the network to output.

What we decided to do was create a vector with 0s, except in the position of the correct digit:

>>> digit = 3
>>> t = np.zeros((10, 1))
>>> t[digit] = 1
>>> t
array([[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[1.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.]])

I then proceeded to saying we would more or less interpret these numbers as the probabilities that the network assigns to each digit; e.g. if the network receives an image of a three, we want the network to say that there's 0% chance that image is a 0, 0% chance it is a 1, or 0% chance it is an 8, but we would want the network to say there's 100% chance that that image is an image of a 3. However, the activation function we used in the last layer was the leaky ReLU, and the leaky ReLU can output numbers outside the range $$[0, 1]$$, which is the range where probabilities lie.

As we have seen, we can still create something that works if we overlook this subtlety, but we should actually be careful to make sure everything is consistent with our assumptions, otherwise we might get a problem later down the road that is caused by these inconsistencies... and if you kick this can down the road, it becomes really hard to trace back those future problems to this present inconsistency.

Fixing this can be as simple as using an activation function that only produces values in the range $$[0, 1]$$ in the last layer. The sigmoid function is an appropriate alternative, as it takes any real number and always produces a value in $$[0, 1]$$. The sigmoid function looks like this:

The formula for the sigmoid function is the following:

$f(x) = \frac1{1 + e^{-x}}$

If we want to implement a Sigmoid activation function, all we need to do is figure out what its derivative is, and then implement it as a class that inherits the ActivationFunction abstract class we created.

If you do the maths you can find out that the derivative of the sigmoid function is

$f'(x) = \frac{e^{-x}}{\left(e^{-x} + 1\right)^2} ~~~,$

which can feel a bit nasty, but you can also write the derivative of the sigmoid function in terms of the sigmoid function itself, which means that

$f'(x) = f(x)(1 - f(x)) ~~~.$

Writing this as code is really simple:

class Sigmoid(ActivationFunction):
def f(self, x):
return 1/(1 + np.exp(-x))

def df(self, x):
return self.f(x) * (1 - self.f(x))

Having implemented the Sigmoid class, you can go to your mnist.py script and replace the activation function you are using in your final layer:

# ...

if __name__ == "__main__":
layers = [
Layer(784, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 10, Sigmoid()),
]

# ...

# Appropriate loss function

The loss function is the function that we use to measure how well the network behaves: we give some input to the network and then compare its output to the target output by means of the loss function. We can then differentiate the loss function and use the backpropagation algorithm to adjust the weights and biases in the network.

What we didn't spend much time on is the fact that different loss functions will give different results for the same network and target outputs, and therefore will influence the several weights and biases in different ways. In particular, depending on the type of task we are performing, some loss functions are more suitable than others.

## Mean squared error

Recognising handwritten digits is a classification task, which means that given some input, we want to find out the class that it falls into: in our case, we had ten classes – one for each digit. The mean squared error isn't necessarily the best loss function for classification problems because the MSE computes the euclidean distance between the two outputs (computed and target) and it is not very sensitive to actual classification mistakes, which will show up when you compute the derivative of the loss function.

To try and make my point clear, let us pretend we have an image of a three, for which the target output is the following:

>>> digit = 3
>>> t = np.zeros((10, 1))
>>> t[digit] = 1
>>> t
array([[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[1.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.],
[0.]])

And let us create a vector that we will pretend the network created:

>>> out = np.array([0.51, 0, 0, 0.49, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0]).reshape((10, 1))

If we differentiate the loss function on the output out and the target t, this is what we get:

>>> MSELoss().dloss(out, t)
array([[ 0.102],
[ 0.   ],
[ 0.   ],
[-0.102],
[ 0.   ],
[ 0.   ],
[ 0.   ],
[ 0.   ],
[ 0.   ],
[ 0.   ]])

If you look at the result of the derivative above, you can see that there are zeroes in all positions, except positions 0 and 3, which were the ones where out differed from t. For those two positions, the values are the same, apart from the sign: this shows that the mean squared error loss function attributes the same importance to both mistakes:

• the mistake of giving +0.51 to the wrong class; and
• the mistake of giving -0.51 to the correct class.

We could argue that it would be more interesting to come up with an activation function that punishes classification mistakes in a harsher way.

## Alternative loss function

If you know of a loss function that you would prefer to use at this point, go right ahead and implement it. I am not a connoisseur of loss functions so I just borrowed some ideas from PyTorch and found this loss function that, quoting the docs,

“[It] is useful to train a classification problem with C classes.”

This is talking about the NLLLoss loss function. However, if we keep on reading, the docs go on to say that this loss function expects the input in a given format, and provides two suggestions for this:

• add an extra layer at the end of the network, that computes the appropriate transformation of the network outputs; or
• use the CrossEntropyLoss instead, which is basically the NLLLoss with a pre-processing of the arguments. The composition of that pre-processing with the NLLLoss creates the CrossEntropyLoss.

Because I am the type of person that would implement NLLLoss and then forget to add that extra layer to my networks, I'll just implement the CrossEntropyLoss as per PyTorch docs.

For this, we just create a new CrossEntropyLoss class. The loss method is basically defined in the docs for us, so we just write

class CrossEntropyLoss(LossFunction):
def loss(self, values, target_class):
return -values[target_class, 0] + np.log(np.sum(np.exp(values)))

The only thing that remains is having to implement dloss, and for that we need to differentiate the function above. If $$x$$ is the output of our network and $$tc$$ is the index of the target class, then the loss function above is

$L(x) = -x_{tc} + \log\left(\sum_i e^{x_i} \right) ~~~.$

Differentiating this function will yield

$\frac{\partial L}{\partial x_j} = \begin{cases} \frac{e^x_j}{\sum_i e^{x_i}} ~, j \neq tc \\ -1 + \frac{e^x_j}{\sum_i e^{x_i}} ~, j = tc \end{cases} ~~~,$

which translates to the following code:

class CrossEntropyLoss(LossFunction):
"""Cross entropy loss function following the pytorch docs."""
def loss(self, values, target_class):
return -values[target_class, 0] + np.log(np.sum(np.exp(values)))

def dloss(self, values, target_class):
d = np.exp(values)/np.sum(np.exp(values))
d[target_class, 0] -= 1
return d

What that means is that, when training a network with the CrossEntropyLoss, instead of giving it the target column vector like we have, we just feed it the index of the correct class.

In our examples/mnist.py file, that would mean changing the train function to the following:

def train(net, train_data):
# We no longer need to compute the dictionary ts.
for i, train_row in enumerate(train_data):
t = train_row[0]            # <-- was   t = ts[train_row[0]]
x = to_col(train_row[1:])
net.train(x, t)

# Incorporating the changes

Now that we have the tools to fix these inconsistencies, we can experiment with them. For one, we have the new Sigmoid activation function that allows to actually interpret output values as probabilities. Secondly, we have a new CrossEntropyLoss loss function that is more suitable for the type of task we are performing.

When you are trying to solve some task with machine learning, part of the trouble is going through the configuration of your model. So far, I have guided you because my purpose is helping you to implement a neural network. However, now I invite you to actually spend a bit of time playing around with the activation and loss functions you now have and figuring out what type of model seems to work for the MNIST dataset, or for some other task you came up with.

To give you a little push, why don't you try these configurations, and play around with them:

    # First configuration we tried.
layers = [
Layer(784, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 10, LeakyReLU()),
]
net = NeuralNetwork(layers, MSELoss(), 0.001)

# Use a Sigmoid as the final layer (don't forget to import it!)
layers = [
Layer(784, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 10, Sigmoid()),
]
net = NeuralNetwork(layers, MSELoss(), 0.001)

# Use Sigmoid at the end and CrossEntropyLoss (import them!)
layers = [
Layer(784, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 10, Sigmoid()),
]
net = NeuralNetwork(layers, CrossEntropyLoss(), 0.001)

# Only LeakyReLU's and the CrossEntropyLoss (import the loss!)
layers = [
Layer(784, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 16, LeakyReLU()),
Layer(16, 10, Sigmoid()),
]
net = NeuralNetwork(layers, CrossEntropyLoss(), 0.001)

Notice that I only changed the activation function of the last layer and the loss function being used. You can play around with the number of layers, their activation functions, the learning rate of the network, ...

You can find all the code for this series in this GitHub repository and the code that corresponds to the end of this article is available under the tag v1.2.

In the next article we will take a look at an interesting experience you can do with two neural networks, where we will essentially try to compress a neural network into a smaller network.

# The series

These are all the articles in this series:

I hope you learned something new! If you did, consider following the footsteps of the readers who bought me a slice of pizza 🍕. Your small contribution helps me produce this content for free and without spamming you with annoying ads.