Training a Neural Network

We will now learn how to train a neural network. We will also learn back propagation algorithm and backward pass in Python Deep Learning.

We have to find the optimal values of the weights of a neural network to get the desired output. To train a neural network, we use the iterative gradient descent method. We start initially with random initialization of the weights. After random initialization, we make predictions on some subset of the data with forward-propagation process, compute the corresponding cost function C, and update each weight w by an amount proportional to dC/dw, i.e., the derivative of the cost functions w.r.t. the weight. The proportionality constant is known as the learning rate.

The gradients can be calculated efficiently using the back-propagation algorithm. The key observation of backward propagation or backward prop is that because of the chain rule of differentiation, the gradient at each neuron in the neural network can be calculated using the gradient at the neurons, it has outgoing edges to. Hence, we calculate the gradients backwards, i.e., first calculate the gradients of the output layer, then the top-most hidden layer, followed by the preceding hidden layer, and so on, ending at the input layer.

The back-propagation algorithm is implemented mostly using the idea of a computational graph, where each neuron is expanded to many nodes in the computational graph and performs a simple mathematical operation like addition, multiplication. The computational graph does not have any weights on the edges; all weights are assigned to the nodes, so the weights become their own nodes. The backward propagation algorithm is then run on the computational graph. Once the calculation is complete, only the gradients of the weight nodes are required for update. The rest of the gradients can be discarded.

Gradient Descent Optimization Technique

One commonly used optimization function that adjusts weights according to the error they caused is called the “gradient descent.”

Gradient is another name for slope, and slope, on an x-y graph, represents how two variables are related to each other: the rise over the run, the change in distance over the change in time, etc. In this case, the slope is the ratio between the network’s error and a single weight; i.e., how does the error change as the weight is varied.

To put it more precisely, we want to find which weight produces the least error. We want to find the weight that correctly represents the signals contained in the input data, and translates them to a correct classification.

As a neural network learns, it slowly adjusts many weights so that they can map signal to meaning correctly. The ratio between network Error and each of those weights is a derivative, dE/dw that calculates the extent to which a slight change in a weight causes a slight change in the error.

Each weight is just one factor in a deep network that involves many transforms; the signal of the weight passes through activations and sums over several layers, so we use the chain rule of calculus to work back through the network activations and outputs.This leads us to the weight in question, and its relationship to overall error.

Given two variables, error and weight, are mediated by a third variable, activation, through which the weight is passed. We can calculate how a change in weight affects a change in error by first calculating how a change in activation affects a change in Error, and how a change in weight affects a change in activation.

The basic idea in deep learning is nothing more than that: adjusting a model’s weights in response to the error it produces, until you cannot reduce the error any more.

The deep net trains slowly if the gradient value is small and fast if the value is high. Any inaccuracies in training leads to inaccurate outputs. The process of training the nets from the output back to the input is called back propagation or back prop. We know that forward propagation starts with the input and works forward. Back prop does the reverse/opposite calculating the gradient from right to left.

Each time we calculate a gradient, we use all the previous gradients up to that point.

Let us start at a node in the output layer. The edge uses the gradient at that node. As we go back into the hidden layers, it gets more complex. The product of two numbers between 0 and 1 gives youa smaller number. The gradient value keeps getting smaller and as a result back prop takes a lot of time to train and accuracy suffers.

Challenges in Deep Learning Algorithms

There are certain challenges for both shallow neural networks and deep neural networks, like overfitting and computation time. DNNs are affected by overfitting because the use of added layers of abstraction which allow them to model rare dependencies in the training data.

Regularization methods such as drop out, early stopping, data augmentation, transfer learning are applied during training to combat overfitting. Drop out regularization randomly omits units from the hidden layers during training which helps in avoiding rare dependencies. DNNs take into consideration several training parameters such as the size, i.e., the number of layers and the number of units per layer, the learning rate and initial weights. Finding optimal parameters is not always practical due to the high cost in time and computational resources. Several hacks such as batching can speed up computation. The large processing power of GPUs has significantly helped the training process, as the matrix and vector computations required are well-executed on the GPUs.


Dropout is a popular regularization technique for neural networks. Deep neural networks are particularly prone to overfitting.

Let us now see what dropout is and how it works.

In the words of Geoffrey Hinton, one of the pioneers of Deep Learning, ‘If you have a deep neural net and it’s not overfitting, you should probably be using a bigger one and using dropout’.

Dropout is a technique where during each iteration of gradient descent, we drop a set of randomly selected nodes. This means that we ignore some nodes randomly as if they do not exist.

Each neuron is kept with a probability of q and dropped randomly with probability 1-q. The value q may be different for each layer in the neural network. A value of 0.5 for the hidden layers, and 0 for input layer works well on a wide range of tasks.

During evaluation and prediction, no dropout is used. The output of each neuron is multiplied by q so that the input to the next layer has the same expected value.

The idea behind Dropout is as follows − In a neural network without dropout regularization, neurons develop co-dependency amongst each other that leads to overfitting.

Implementation trick

Dropout is implemented in libraries such as TensorFlow and Pytorch by keeping the output of the randomly selected neurons as 0. That is, though the neuron exists, its output is overwritten as 0.

Early Stopping

We train neural networks using an iterative algorithm called gradient descent.

The idea behind early stopping is intuitive; we stop training when the error starts to increase. Here, by error, we mean the error measured on validation data, which is the part of training data used for tuning hyper-parameters. In this case, the hyper-parameter is the stop criteria.

Data Augmentation

The process where we increase the quantum of data we have or augment it by using existing data and applying some transformations on it. The exact transformations used depend on the task we intend to achieve. Moreover, the transformations that help the neural net depend on its architecture.

For instance, in many computer vision tasks such as object classification, an effective data augmentation technique is adding new data points that are cropped or translated versions of original data.

When a computer accepts an image as an input, it takes in an array of pixel values. Let us say that the whole image is shifted left by 15 pixels. We apply many different shifts in different directions, resulting in an augmented dataset many times the size of the original dataset.

Transfer Learning

The process of taking a pre-trained model and “fine-tuning” the model with our own dataset is called transfer learning. There are several ways to do this.A few ways are described below −

  • We train the pre-trained model on a large dataset. Then, we remove the last layer of the network and replace it with a new layer with random weights.

  • We then freeze the weights of all the other layers and train the network normally. Here freezing the layers is not changing the weights during gradient descent or optimization.

The concept behind this is that the pre-trained model will act as a feature extractor, and only the last layer will be trained on the current task.