MLP, Numpy, TF2 – performance issues – Step III – a correction to BW propagation

In the last articles of this series

MLP, Numpy, TF2 – performance issues – Step II – bias neurons, F- or C- contiguous arrays and performance
MLP, Numpy, TF2 – performance issues – Step I – float32, reduction of back propagation

we looked at the FW-propagation of the MLP code which I discussed in another article series. We found that the treatment of bias neurons in the input layer was technically inefficient due to a collision of C- and F-contiguous arrays. By circumventing the problem we could accelerate the FW-propagation of big batches (as the complete training or test data set) by more than a factor of 2.

In this article I want to turn to the BW propagation and do some analysis regarding CPU consumption there. We will find a simple (and stupid) calculation step there which we shall replace. This will give us another 15% to 22% performance improvement in comparison to what we have reached in the last article for MNIST data:

  • 9.6 secs for 35 epochs and a batch-size of 500
  • and 8.7 secs for a batch-size of 20000.

Present CPU time relation between the FW- and the BW-propagation

The central training of mini-batches is performed by the method “_handle_mini_batch()”.

    ''' -- Method to deal with a batch -- '''
    def _handle_mini_batch (self, num_batch = 0, num_epoch = 0, b_print_y_vals = False, b_print = False, b_keep_bw_matrices = True):
        ''' .... '''
        # Layer-related lists to be filled with 2-dim Numpy matrices during FW propagation
        # ********************************************************************************
        li_Z_in_layer  = [None] * self._n_total_layers # List of matrices with z-input values for each layer; filled during FW-propagation
        li_A_out_layer = li_Z_in_layer.copy()          # List of matrices with results of activation/output-functions for each layer; filled during FW-propagation
        li_delta_out   = li_Z_in_layer.copy()          # Matrix with out_delta-values at the outermost layer 
        li_delta_layer = li_Z_in_layer.copy()          # List of the matrices for the BW propagated delta values 
        li_D_layer     = li_Z_in_layer.copy()          # List of the derivative matrices D containing partial derivatives of the activation/ouput functions 
        li_grad_layer  = li_Z_in_layer.copy()          # List of the matrices with gradient values for weight corrections
        # Major steps for the mini-batch during one epoch iteration 
        # **********************************************************
        # Step 0: List of indices for data records in the present mini-batch
        # ******
        ay_idx_batch = self._ay_mini_batches[num_batch]
        # Step 1: Special preparation of the Z-input to the MLP's input Layer L0
        # ******
        # ts=time.perf_counter()
        # slicing 
        li_Z_in_layer[0] = self._X_train[ay_idx_batch] # numpy arrays can be indexed by an array of integers
        # transposition 
        li_Z_in_layer[0] = li_Z_in_layer[0].T
        #te=time.perf_counter(); t_batch = te - ts;
        #print("\nti - transposed inputbatch =", t_batch)
        # Step 2: Call forward propagation method for the present mini-batch of training records
        # *******
n        #tsa = time.perf_counter() 
        self._fw_propagation(li_Z_in = li_Z_in_layer, li_A_out = li_A_out_layer) 
        #tea = time.perf_counter(); ta = tea - tsa;  print("ta - FW-propagation", "%10.8f"%ta)
        # Step 3: Cost calculation for the mini-batch 
        # ********
        #tsb = time.perf_counter() 
        ay_y_enc = self._ay_onehot[:, ay_idx_batch]
        ay_ANN_out = li_A_out_layer[self._n_total_layers-1]
        total_costs_batch, rel_reg_contrib = self._calculate_loss_for_batch(ay_y_enc, ay_ANN_out, b_print = False)
        # we add the present cost value to the numpy array 
        self._ay_costs[num_epoch, num_batch]            = total_costs_batch
        self._ay_reg_cost_contrib[num_epoch, num_batch] = rel_reg_contrib
        #teb = time.perf_counter(); tb = teb - tsb; print("tb - cost calculation", "%10.8f"%tb)
        # Step 4: Avg-error for later plotting 
        # ********
        #tsc = time.perf_counter() 
        # mean "error" values - averaged over all nodes at outermost layer and all data sets of a mini-batch 
        ay_theta_out = ay_y_enc - ay_ANN_out
        ay_theta_avg = np.average(np.abs(ay_theta_out)) 
        self._ay_theta[num_epoch, num_batch] = ay_theta_avg 
        #tec = time.perf_counter(); tc = tec - tsc; print("tc - error", "%10.8f"%tc)
        # Step 5: Perform gradient calculation via back propagation of errors
        # ******* 
        #tsd = time.perf_counter() 
        self._bw_propagation( ay_y_enc = ay_y_enc, 
                              li_Z_in = li_Z_in_layer, 
                              li_A_out = li_A_out_layer, 
                              li_delta_out = li_delta_out, 
                              li_delta = li_delta_layer,
                              li_D = li_D_layer, 
                              li_grad = li_grad_layer, 
                              b_print = b_print,
                              b_internal_timing = False 
        #ted = time.perf_counter(); td = ted - tsd; print("td - BW propagation", "%10.8f"%td)
        # Step 7: Adjustment of weights  
        # *******        
        #tsf = time.perf_counter() 
        rg_layer=range(0, self._n_total_layers -1)
        for N in rg_layer:
            delta_w_N = self._learn_rate * li_grad_layer[N]
            self._li_w[N] -= ( delta_w_N + (self._mom_rate * self._li_mom[N]) )
            # save momentum
            self._li_mom[N] = delta_w_N
        #tef = time.perf_counter(); tf = tef - tsf; print("tf - weight correction", "%10.8f"%tf)
        return None


I took some time measurements there:

ti - transposed inputbatch = 0.0001785
ta - FW-propagation 0.00080975
tb - cost calculation 0.00030705
tc - error 0.00016182
td - BW propagation 0.00112558
tf - weight correction 0.00020079

ti - transposed inputbatch = 0.00018144
ta - FW-propagation 0.00082022
tb - cost calculation 0.00031284
tc - error 0.00016652
td - BW propagation 0.00106464
tf - weight correction 0.00019576

You see that the FW-propagation is a bit faster than the BW-propagation. This is a bit strange as the FW-propagation is dominated meanwhile by a really expensive operation which we cannot accelerate (without choosing a new activation function): The calculation of the sigmoid value for the inputs at layer L1.

So let us look into the BW-propagation; the code for it is momentarily:

    ''' -- Method to handle error BW propagation for a mini-batch --'''
    def _bw_propagation(self, 
                        ay_y_enc, li_Z_in, li_A_out, 
                        li_delta_out, li_delta, li_D, li_
                        b_print = True, b_internal_timing = False):
        # List initialization: All parameter lists or arrays are filled or to be filled by layer operations 
        # Note: the lists li_Z_in, li_A_out were already filled by _fw_propagation() for the present batch 
        # Initiate BW propagation - provide delta-matrices for outermost layer
        # *********************** 
        tsa = time.perf_counter() 
        # Input Z at outermost layer E  (4 layers -> layer 3)
        ay_Z_E = li_Z_in[self._n_total_layers-1]
        # Output A at outermost layer E (was calculated by output function)
        ay_A_E = li_A_out[self._n_total_layers-1]
        # Calculate D-matrix (derivative of output function) at outmost the layer - presently only D_sigmoid 
        ay_D_E = self._calculate_D_E(ay_Z_E=ay_Z_E, b_print=b_print )
        #ay_D_E = ay_A_E * (1.0 - ay_A_E)

        # Get the 2 delta matrices for the outermost layer (only layer E has 2 delta-matrices)
        ay_delta_E, ay_delta_out_E = self._calculate_delta_E(ay_y_enc=ay_y_enc, ay_A_E=ay_A_E, ay_D_E=ay_D_E, b_print=b_print) 
        # add the matrices to their lists ; li_delta_out gets only one element 
        idxE = self._n_total_layers - 1
        li_delta_out[idxE] = ay_delta_out_E # this happens only once
        li_delta[idxE]     = ay_delta_E
        li_D[idxE]         = ay_D_E
        li_grad[idxE]      = None    # On the outermost layer there is no gradient ! 
        tea = time.perf_counter(); ta = tea - tsa; print("\nta-bp", "%10.8f"%ta)
        # Loop over all layers in reverse direction 
        # ******************************************
        # index range of target layers N in BW direction (starting with E-1 => 4 layers -> layer 2))
        range_N_bw_layer = reversed(range(0, self._n_total_layers-1))   # must be -1 as the last element is not taken 
        # loop over layers 
        tsb = time.perf_counter() 
        for N in range_N_bw_layer:
            # Back Propagation operations between layers N+1 and N 
            # *******************************************************
            # this method handles the special treatment of bias nodes in Z_in, too
            tsib = time.perf_counter() 
            ay_delta_N, ay_D_N, ay_grad_N = self._bw_prop_Np1_to_N( N=N, li_Z_in=li_Z_in, li_A_out=li_A_out, li_delta=li_delta, b_print=False )
            teib = time.perf_counter(); tib = teib - tsib; print("N = ", N, " tib-bp", "%10.8f"%tib)
            # add matrices to their lists 
            #tsic = time.perf_counter() 
            li_delta[N] = ay_delta_N
            li_D[N]     = ay_D_N
            li_grad[N]= ay_grad_N
            #teic = time.perf_counter(); tic = teic - tsic; print("\nN = ", N, " tic = ", "%10.8f"%tic)
        teb = time.perf_counter(); tb = teb - tsb; print("tb-bp", "%10.8f"%tb)


Typical timing results are:

ta-bp 0.00007112
N =  2  tib-bp 0.00025399
N =  1  tib-bp 0.00051683
N =  0  tib-bp 0.00035941
tb-bp 0.00126436

ta-bp 0.00007492
N =  2  tib-bp 0.00027644
N =  1  tib-bp 0.00090043
N =  0  tib-bp 0.00036728
tb-bp 0.00168378

We see that the CPU consumption of “_bw_prop_Np1_to_N()” should be analyzed in detail. It is relatively time consuming at every layer, but especially at layer L1. (The list adds are insignificant.)
What does this method presently look like?

    ''' -- Method to calculate the BW-propagated delta-matrix and the gradient matrix to/for layer N '''
    def _bw_prop_Np1_to_N(self, N, li_Z_in, li_A_out, li_delta, b_print=False):
error-propagation between layer N+1 and N 
        Version 1.5 - partially accelerated 

            li_Z_in:  List of input Z-matrices on all layers - values were calculated during FW-propagation
            li_A_out: List of output A-matrices - values were calculated during FW-propagation
            li_delta: List of delta-matrices - values for outermost ölayer E to layer N+1 should exist 
            ay_delta_N - delta-matrix of layer N (required in subsequent steps)
            ay_D_N     - derivative matrix for the activation function on layer N 
            ay_grad_N  - matrix with gradient elements of the cost fnction with respect to the weights on layer N 
        # Prepare required quantities - and add bias neuron to ay_Z_in 
        # ****************************
        # Weight matrix meddling between layers N and N+1 
        ay_W_N = self._li_w[N]

        # delta-matrix of layer N+1
        ay_delta_Np1 = li_delta[N+1]

        # fetch output value saved during FW propagation 
        ay_A_N = li_A_out[N]

        # Optimization V1.5 ! 
        if N > 0: 
            ay_Z_N = li_Z_in[N]
            # !!! Add intermediate row (for bias) to Z_N !!!
            ay_Z_N = self._add_bias_neuron_to_layer(ay_Z_N, 'row')
            #te=time.perf_counter(); t1 = te - ts; print("\nBW t1 = ", t1, " N = ", N) 
            # Derivative matrix for the activation function (with extra bias node row)
            # ********************
            #    can only be calculated now as we need the z-values
            ay_D_N = self._calculate_D_N(ay_Z_N)
            #te=time.perf_counter(); t2 = te - ts; print("\nBW t2 = ", t2, " N = ", N) 
            # Propagate delta
            # **************

            # intermediate delta 
            # ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            ay_delta_w_N =
            #te=time.perf_counter(); t3 = te - ts; print("\nBW t3 = ", t3) 
            # final delta 
            # ~~~~~~~~~~~
            ay_delta_N = ay_delta_w_N * ay_D_N
            # Orig reduce dimension again
            # **************************** 
            ay_delta_N = ay_delta_N[1:, :]
            #te=time.perf_counter(); t4 = te - ts; print("\nBW t4 = ", t4) 
            ay_delta_N = None
            ay_D_N = None
        # Calculate gradient
        # ********************
        ay_grad_N =, ay_A_N.T)
        #te=time.perf_counter(); t5 = te - ts; print("\nBW t5 = ", t5) 
        # regularize gradient (!!!! without adding bias nodes in the L1, L2 sums) 
        if self._lambda2_reg > 0: 
            ay_grad_N[:, 1:] += self._li_w[N][:, 1:] * self._lambda2_reg 
        if self._lambda1_reg > 0: 
            ay_grad_N[:, 1:] += np.sign(self._li_w[N][:, 1:]) * self._lambda1_reg 
        #te=time.perf_counter(); t6 = te - ts; print("\nBW t6 = ", t6) 
        return ay_delta_N, ay_D_N, ay_grad_N

Timing data for a batch-size of 500 are:

N =  2
BW t1 =  0.0001169009999557602  N =  2
BW t2 =  0.00035331499998392246  N =  2
BW t3 =  0.00018078099992635543
BW t4 =  0.00010234199999104021
BW t5 =  9.928200006470433e-05
BW t6 =  2.4267000071631628e-05
N =  2  tib-bp 0.00124414

N =  1
BW t1 =  0.0004323499999827618  N =  1
BW t2 =  0.
000781415999881574  N =  1
BW t3 =  4.2077999978573644e-05
BW t4 =  0.00022921000004316738
BW t5 =  9.376399998473062e-05
BW t6 =  0.00012183700005152787
N =  1  tib-bp 0.00216281

N =  0
BW t5 =  0.0004289769999559212
BW t6 =  0.00015404999999191205
N =  0  tib-bp 0.00075249
N =  2
BW t1 =  0.00012802800006284087  N =  2
BW t2 =  0.00034988200013685855  N =  2
BW t3 =  0.0001854429999639251
BW t4 =  0.00010359299994888715
BW t5 =  0.00010210400000687514
BW t6 =  2.4010999823076418e-05
N =  2  tib-bp 0.00125854

N =  1
BW t1 =  0.0004407169999467442  N =  1
BW t2 =  0.0007845899999665562  N =  1
BW t3 =  0.00025684100000944454
BW t4 =  0.00012409999999363208
BW t5 =  0.00010345399982725212
BW t6 =  0.00012994100006835652
N =  1  tib-bp 0.00221321

N =  0
BW t5 =  0.00044504700008474174
BW t6 =  0.00016473000005134963
N =  0  tib-bp 0.00071442

N =  2
BW t1 =  0.000292730999944979  N =  2
BW t2 =  0.001102525000078458  N =  2
BW t3 =  2.9429999813146424e-05
BW t4 =  8.547999868824263e-06
BW t5 =  3.554099998837046e-05
BW t6 =  2.5041999833774753e-05
N =  2  tib-bp 0.00178565

N =  1
BW t1 =  3.143399999316898e-05  N =  1
BW t2 =  0.0006720640001276479  N =  1
BW t3 =  5.4785999964224175e-05
BW t4 =  9.756200006449944e-05
BW t5 =  0.0001605449999715347
BW t6 =  1.8391000139672542e-05
N =  1  tib-bp 0.00147566

N =  0
BW t5 =  0.0003641810001226986
BW t6 =  6.338999992294703e-05
N =  0  tib-bp 0.00046542

It seems that we should care about t1, t2, t3 for hidden layers and maybe about t5 at layers L1/L0.

However, for a batch-size of 15000 things look a bit different:

N =  2
BW t1 =  0.0005776280000304723  N =  2
BW t2 =  0.004995969999981753  N =  2
BW t3 =  0.0003165199999557444
BW t4 =  0.0005244750000201748
BW t5 =  0.000518499999998312
BW t6 =  2.2458999978880456e-05
N =  2  tib-bp 0.00736144

N =  1
BW t1 =  0.0010120430000029046  N =  1
BW t2 =  0.010797029000002567  N =  1
BW t3 =  0.0005006920000028003
BW t4 =  0.0008704929999794331
BW t5 =  0.0010805200000163495
BW t6 =  3.0326000000968634e-05
N =  1  tib-bp 0.01463436

N =  0
BW t5 =  0.006987539000022025
BW t6 =  0.00023552499999368592
N =  0  tib-bp 0.00730959

N =  2
BW t1 =  0.0006299790000525718  N =  2
BW t2 =  0.005081416999985322  N =  2
BW t3 =  0.00018547400003399162
BW t4 =  0.0005970070000103078
BW t5 =  0.000564008000026206
BW t6 =  2.3311000006742688e-05
N =  2  tib-bp 0.00737899

N =  1
BW t1 =  0.0009376909999900818  N =  1
BW t2 =  0.010650266999959968  N =  1
BW t3 =  0.0005232729999988806
BW t4 =  0.0009100700000317374
BW t5 =  0.0011237720000281115
BW t6 =  0.00016643800000792908
N =  1  tib-bp 0.01466144

N =  0
BW t5 =  0.006987463000029948
BW t6 =  0.00023978600000873485
N =  0  tib-bp 0.00734308

For big batch-sizes “t2” dominates everything. It seems that we have found another code area which causes the trouble with big batch-sizes which we already observed before!

What operations do the different CPU times stand for?

To keep an overview without looking into the code again, I briefly summarize which operations cause which of the measured time differences:

  • t1” – which contributes for small batch-sizes stands for adding a bias neuron to the input data Z_in at each layer.
  • t2” – which is by far dominant for big batch sizes stands for calculating the derivative of the output/activation function (in our case of the sigmoid function) at the various layers.
  • t3” – which contributes at
    some layers stands for a dot()-matrix multiplication with the transposed weight-matrix,
  • t4” – covers an element-wise matrix-multiplication,
  • t5” – contributes at the BW-transition from layer L1 to L0 and covers the matrix multiplication there (including the full output matrix with the bias neurons at L0)

Use the output values calculated at each layer during FW-propagation!

Why does the calculation of the derivative of the sigmoid function take so much time? Answer: Because I coded it stupidly! Just look at it:

    ''' -- Method to calculate the matrix with the derivative values of the output function at outermost layer '''
    def _calculate_D_N(self, ay_Z_N, b_print= False):
        This method calculates and returns the D-matrix for the outermost layer
        The D matrix contains derivatives of the output function with respect to local input "z_j" at outermost nodes. 
        ay_D_E:    Matrix with derivative values of the output function 
                   with respect to local z_j valus at the nodes of the outermost layer E
        Note: This is a 2-dim matrix over layer nodes and training samples of the mini-batch
        if self._my_out_func == 'sigmoid':
            ay_D_E = self._D_sigmoid(ay_Z = ay_Z_N)
            print("The derivative for output function " + self._my_out_func + " is not known yet!" )
        return ay_D_E

    ''' -- method for the derivative of the sigmoid function-- '''
    def _D_sigmoid(self, ay_Z):
        Derivative of sigmoid function with respect to Z-values 
        - works via expit element-wise on matrices
        Input:  Z - Matrix with Input values for the activation function Phi() = sigmoid() 
        Output: D - Matrix with derivative values 
        S_Z = self._sigmoid(ay_Z)
        return S_Z * (1.0 - S_Z)

We first call an intermediate function which then directs us to the right function for a chosen activation function. Well meant: So far, we use only the sigmoid function, but it could e.g. also be the relu() or tanh()-function. So, we did what we did for the sake of generalization. But we did it badly because of two reasons:

  • We did not keep up a function call pattern which we introduced in the FW-propagation.
  • The calculation of the derivative is inefficient.

The first point is a minor one: During FW-propagation we called the right (!) activation function, i.e. the one we choose by input parameters to our ANN-object, by an indirect call. Why not do it the same way here? We would avoid an intermediate function call and keep up a pattern. Actually, we prepared the necessary definitions already in the __init__()-function.

The second point is relevant for performance: The derivative function produces the correct results for a given “ay_Z”, but this is totally inefficient in our BW-situation. The code repeats a really expensive operation which we have already performed during FW-propagation: calling sigmoid(ay_Z) to get “A_out”-values per layer then. We even put the A_out-values [=sigmoid(ay_Z_in)] per layer and batch (!) with some foresight into a list in “li_A_out[]” at that point of the code (see the FW-propagation code discussed in the last article).

So, of course, we should use these “A_out”-values now in the BW-steps! No further comment …. you see what we need to do.

Hint: Actually, also other activation functions “act(Z)” like e.g. the “tanh()”-function have derivatives which depend on on “A=act(
Z)”, only. So, we should provide Z and A via an interface to the derivative function and let the respective functions take what it needs.
But, my insight into my own dumbness gets worse.

Eliminate the bias neuron operation!

Why did we need a bias-neuron operation? Answer: We do not need it! It was only introduced due to insufficient cleverness. In the article

A simple Python program for an ANN to cover the MNIST dataset – VII – EBP related topics and obstacles

I have already indicated that we use the function for adding a row of bias-neurons again only to compensate one deficit: The matrix of the derivative values did not fit the shape of the weight matrix for the required element-wise operations. However, I also said: There probably is an alternative.

Well, let me make a long story short: The steps behind t1 up to t4 to calculate “ay_delta_N” for the present layer L_N (with N>=1) can be compressed into two relatively simple lines:

ay_delta_w_N =
ay_delta_N = ay_delta_w_N[1:,:] * ay_A_N[1:,:] * (1.0 – ay_A_N[1:,:]); ay_D_N = None;

No bias back and forth corrections! Instead we use simple slicing to compensate for our weight matrices with a shape covering an extra row of bias node output. No Z-based derivative calculation; no sigmoid(Z)-call. The last statement is only required to support the present output interface. Think it through in detail; the shortcut does not cause any harm.

Code change for tests

Before we bring the code into a new consolidated form with re-coded methods let us see what we gain by just changing the code to the two lines given above in terms of CPU time and performance. Our function “_bw_prop_Np1_to_N()” then gets reduced to the following lines:

    ''' -- Method to calculate the BW-propagated delta-matrix and the gradient matrix to/for layer N '''
    def _bw_prop_Np1_to_N(self, N, li_Z_in, li_A_out, li_delta, b_print=False):
        # Weight matrix meddling between layers N and N+1 
        ay_W_N = self._li_w[N]
        ay_delta_Np1 = li_delta[N+1]

        # fetch output value saved during FW propagation 
        ay_A_N = li_A_out[N]

        # Optimization from previous version  
        if N > 0: 
            ay_Z_N = li_Z_in[N]
            # Propagate delta
            # ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            ay_delta_w_N =
            ay_delta_N = ay_delta_w_N[1:,:] * ay_A_N[1:,:] * (1.0 - ay_A_N[1:,:])
            ay_D_N = None; 
            ay_delta_N = None
            ay_D_N = None
        # Calculate gradient
        # ********************
        ay_grad_N =, ay_A_N.T)
        if self._lambda2_reg > 0: 
            ay_grad_N[:, 1:] += self._li_w[N][:, 1:] * self._lambda2_reg 
        if self._lambda1_reg > 0: 
            ay_grad_N[:, 1:] += np.sign(self._li_w[N][:, 1:]) * self._lambda1_reg 
        return ay_delta_N, ay_D_N, ay_grad_N


Performance gain

What run times do we get with this setting? We perform our typical test runs over 35 epochs – but this time for two different batch-sizes:

Batch-size = 500

Starting epoch 35

Time_CPU for epoch 35 0.2169024469985743
Total CPU-time:  7.52385053600301

learning rate =  0.0009994051838157095

total costs of training set   =  -1.0
rel. reg. contrib. to total costs =  -1.0

total costs 
of last mini_batch   =  65.43618
rel. reg. contrib. to batch costs =  0.12302863

mean abs weight at L0 :  -10.0
mean abs weight at L1 :  -10.0
mean abs weight at L2 :  -10.0

avg total error of last mini_batch =  0.00758
presently batch averaged accuracy   =  0.99272

Total training Time_CPU:  7.5257336139984545

Not bad! We became faster by around 2 secs compared to the results of the last article! This is close to an improvement of 20%.

But what about big batch sizes? Here is the result for a relatively big batch size:

Batch-size = 20000

Starting epoch 35

Time_CPU for epoch 35 0.2019189490019926
Total CPU-time:  6.716679593999288

learning rate =  9.994051838157101e-05

total costs of training set   =  -1.0
rel. reg. contrib. to total costs =  -1.0

total costs of last mini_batch   =  13028.141
rel. reg. contrib. to batch costs =  0.00021923862

mean abs weight at L0 :  -10.0
mean abs weight at L1 :  -10.0
mean abs weight at L2 :  -10.0

avg total error of last mini_batch =  0.04389
presently batch averaged accuracy   =  0.95602

Total training Time_CPU:  6.716954112998792

Again an acceleration by roughly 2 secs – corresponding to an improvement of 22%!

In both cases I took the best result out of three runs.


Enough for today! We have done a major step with regard to performance optimization also in the BW-propagation. It remains to re-code the derivative calculation in form which uses indirect function calls to remain flexible. I shall give you the code in the next article.

We learned today is that we, of course, should reuse the results of the FW-propagation and that it is indeed a good investment to save the output data per layer in some Python list or other suitable structures during FW-propagation. We also saw again that a sufficiently efficient bias neuron treatment can be achieved by a more efficient solution than provisioned so far.

All in all we have meanwhile gained more than a factor of 6.5 in performance since we started with optimization. Our new standard values are 7.3 secs and 6.8 secs for 35 epochs on MNIST data and batch sizes of 500 and 20000, respectively.

We have reached the order of what Keras and TF2 can deliver on a CPU for big batch sizes. For small batch sizes we are already faster. This indicates that we have done no bad job so far …

In the next article we shall look a bit at the matrix operations and evaluate further optimization options.

A simple Python program for an ANN to cover the MNIST dataset – VII – EBP related topics and obstacles

I continue with my series about a Python program to build simple MLPs:

A simple Python program for an ANN to cover the MNIST dataset – VI – the math behind the „error back-propagation“
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – V – coding the loss function
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – IV – the concept of a cost or loss function
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – III – forward propagation
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – II – initial random weight values
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – I – a starting point

On our tour we have already learned a lot about multiple aspects of MLP usage. I name forward propagation, matrix operations, loss or cost functions. In the last article of this series
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – VI – the math behind the „error back-propagation“
I tried to explain some of the math which governs “Error Back Propagation” [EBP]. See the PDF attached to the last article.

EBP is an algorithm which applies the “Gradient Descent” method for the optimization of the weights of a Multilayer Perceptron [MLP]. “Gradient Descent” itself is a method where we step-wise follow short tracks perpendicular to contour lines of a hyperplane in a multidimensional parameter space to hopefully approach a global minimum. A step means a change of of parameter values – in our context of weights. In our case the hyperplane is the surface formed by the cost function over the weights. If we have m weights we get a hyperplane in an (m+1) dimensional space.

To apply gradient descent we have to calculate partial derivatives of the cost function with respect to the weights. We have discussed this in detail in the last article. If you read the PDF you certainly have noted: Most of the time we shall execute matrix operations to provide the components of the weight gradient. Of course, we must guarantee that the matrices’ dimensions fit each other such that the required operations – as an element-wise multiplication and the,Y)-operation – become executable.

Unfortunately, there are some challenges regarding this point which we have not covered, yet. One objective of this article is to get prepared for these potential problems before we start coding EBP.

Another point worth discussing is: Is there really just one cost function when we use mini-batches in combination with gradient descent? Regarding the descriptions and the formulas in the PDF of the last article this was and is not fully clear. We only built sums there over cost contributions of all the records in a mini-batch. We did NOT use a loss function which assigned to costs to deviations of the predicted result (after forward propagation) from known values for all training data records.

This triggers the question what our
code in the end really does if and when it works with mini-batches during weight optimization … We start with this point.

In the following I try to keep the writing close to the quantity notations in the PDF. Sorry for a bad display of the δs in HTML.

Gradient descent and mini-batches – one or multiple cost functions?

Regarding the formulas given so far, we obviously handle costs and gradient descent batch-wise. I.e. each mini-batch has its own cost function – with fewer contributions than a cost function for all records would have. Each cost function has (hopefully) a defined position of a global minimum in the weights’ parameter space. Taking this into consideration the whole mini-batch approach is obviously based on some conceptually important assumptions:

  • The basic idea is that the positions of the global minima of all the cost-functions for the different batches do not deviate too much from each other in the basic parameter space.
  • If we additionally defined a cost function for all test data records (over all batches) then this cost function should display a global minimum positioned in between the ones of the batches’ cost functions.
  • This also means that there should be enough records in each batch with a really statistical distribution and no specialties associated with them.
  • Contour lines and gradients on the hyperplanes defined by the loss functions will differ from each other. On average over all mini-batches this should not hinder convergence into a common optimum.

To understand the last point let us assume that we have a batch for MNIST dataset where all records of handwritten digits show a tendency to be shifted to the left border of the basic 28×28 pixel frames. Then this batch would probably give us other weights than other batches.

To get a deeper understanding, let us take only two batches. By chance their cost functions may deviate a bit. In the plots below I have just simulated this by two assumed “cost” functions – each forming a hyperplane in 3 dimensions over only two parameter (=weight) dimensions x and y. You see that the “global” minima of the blue and the red curve deviate a bit in their position.

The next graph shows the sum, i.e. the full “cost function”, in green in comparison to the (vertically shifted and scaled) original functions.

Also here you clearly see the differences in the minimas’ positions. What does this mean for gradient descent?

Firstly, the contour lines on the total cost function would deviate from the ones on the cost function hyperplanes of our 2 batches. So would the directions of the different gradients at the point presently reached in the parameter space during optimization! Working with batches therefore means jumping around on the surface of the total cost function a bit erratically and not precisely along the direction of steepest descent there. By the way: This behavior can be quite helpful to overcome local minima.

Secondly, in our simplified example we would in the end not converge completely, but jump or circle around the minimum of the total cost function. Reason: Each batch forces the weight corrections for x,y into different directions namely those of
its own minimum. So, a weight correction induced by one bath would be countered by corrections imposed by the optimization for the other batch. (Regarding MNIST it would e.g. be interesting to run a batch with handwritten digits of Europeans against a batch with digits written by Americans and see how the weights differ after gradient descent has converged for each batch.)

This makes us understand multiple things:

  • Mini-batches should be built with a statistical distribution of records and their composition should be changed statistically from epoch to epoch.
  • We need a criterion to stop iterating over too many epochs senselessly.
  • We should investigate whether the number and thus the size of mini-batches influences the results of EBP.
  • At the end of an optimization run we could invest in some more iterations not for the batches, but for the full cost function of all training records and see if we can get a little deeper into the minimum of this total cost function.
  • We should analyze our batches – if we keep them up and do not create them statistically anew at the beginning of each epoch – for special data records whose properties are off of the normal – and maybe eliminate those data records.

Repetition: Why Back-propagation of 2 dimensional matrices and not vectors?

The step wise matrix operations of EBP are to be performed according to a scheme with the following structure:

  • On a given layer N apply a layer specific matrix “NW.T” (depending on the weights there) by some operational rule on some matrix “(N+1)δS“, which contains some data already calculated for layer (N+1).
  • Take the results and modify it properly by multiplying it element-wise with some other matrix ND (containing derivative expressions for the activation function) until you get a new NδS.
  • Get partial derivatives of the cost function with respect to the weights on layer (N-1) by a further matrix operation of NδS on a matrix with output values (N-1)A.TS on layer (N-1).
  • Proceed to the next layer in backward direction.

The input into this process is a matrix of error-dependent quantities, which are defined at the output layer. These values are then back-propagated in parallel to the inner layers of our MLP.

Now, why do we propagate data matrices and not just data vectors? Why are we allowed to combine so many different multiplications and summations described in the last article when we deal with partial derivatives with respect to variables deep inside the network?

The answer to the first question is numerical efficiency. We operate on all data records of a mini-batch in parallel; see the PDF. The answer to the second question is 2-fold:

  • We are allowed to perform so many independent operations because of the linear structure of our cost-functions with respect to contributions coming from the records of a mini-batch and the fact that we just apply linear operations between layers during forward propagation. All contributions – however non-linear each may be in itself – are just summed up. And propagation itself between layers is defined to be linear.
  • The only non-linearity occurring – namely in the form of non-linear activation functions – is to be applied just on layers. And there it works only node-wise! We do not
    couple values for nodes on one and the same layer.

In this sense MLPs are very simple by definition – although they may look complex! (By the way and if you wonder why MLPs are nevertheless so powerful: One reason has to do with the “Universal Approximation Theorem”; see the literature hint at the end.)

Consequence of the simplicity: We can deal with δ-values (see the PDF) for both all nodes of a layer and all records of a mini-batch in parallel.

Results derived in the last article would change dramatically if we had rules that coupled the Z- or A-values of different nodes! E.g. if the squared value at node 7 in layer X must always be the sum of squared values at nodes 5 an 6. Believe me: There are real networks in this world where such a type of node coupling occurs – not only in physics.

Note: As we have explained in the PDF, the nodes of a layer define one dimension of the NδS“-matrices,
the number of mini-batch records the other. The latter remains constant. So, during the process the δ-matrices change only one of their 2 dimensions.

Some possible pitfalls to tackle before EBP-coding

Now, my friends, we can happily start coding … Nope, there are actually some minor pitfalls, which we have to explain first.

Special cost-, activation- and output-functions

I refer to the PDF mentioned above and its formulas. The example explained there referred to the “Log Loss” function, which we took as an example cost function. In this case the outδS and the 3δS-terms at the nodes of the outermost layer turned out to be quite simple. See formula (21), (22), (26) and (27) in the PDF.

However, there may be other cost functions for which the derivative with respect to the output vector “a” at the outermost nodes is more complicated.

In addition we may have other output or activation functions than the sigmoid function discussed in the PDF’s example. Further, the output function may differ from the activation function at inner layers. Thus, we find that the partial derivatives of these functions with respect to their variables “z” must be calculated explicitly and as needed for each layer during back propagation; i.e., we have to provide separate and specific functions for the provision of the required derivatives.

At the outermost layer we apply the general formulas (84) to (88) with matrix ED containing derivatives of the output-function Eφ(z) with respect to the input z to find EδS with E marking the outermost layer. Afterwards, however, we apply formula (92) – but this time with D-elements referring to derivatives of the standard activation-function φ used at nodes of inner layers.

The special case of the Log Loss function and other loss functions with critical denominators in their derivative

Formula (21) shows something interesting for the quantity outδS, which is a starting point for backward propagation: a denominator depending on critical factors, which directly involve output “a” at the outer nodes or “a” in a difference term. But in our one-hot-approach “a” may become zero or come close to it – during training by accident or by convergence! This is a dangerous thing; numerically we absolutely want to avoid any division by zero or by small numbers close to the numerical accuracy of a programming language.

What mathematically saves us in the special case of Log Loss are formulas (26) and (27), where due to some “magic” the dangerous denominator is cancelled by a corresponding factor in the numerator when we evaluate EδS.

In the general case, however,
we must investigate what numerical dangers the functional form of the derivative of the loss function may bring with it. In the end there are two things we should do:

  • Build a function to directly calculate EδS and put as much mathematical knowledge about the involved functions and operations into it as possible, before employing an explicit calculation of values of the cost function’s derivative.
  • Check the involved matrices, whose elements may appear in denominators, for elements which are either zero or close to it in the sense of the achievable accuracy.

For our program this means: Whether we calculate the derivative of a cost function to get values for “outδS” will depend on the mathematical nature of the cost function. In case of Log Loss we shall avoid it. In case of MSE we shall perform the numerical operation.

Handling of bias nodes

A further complication of our aspired coding has its origin in the existence of bias nodes on every inner layer of the MLP. A bias node of a layer adds an additional degree of freedom whilst adjusting the layer’s weights; a bias node has no input, it produces only a constant output – but is connected with weights to all normal nodes of the next layer.

Some readers who are not so familiar with “artificial neural networks” may ask: Why do we need bias nodes at all?

Well, think about a simple matrix operation on a 2 dim-vector; it changes its direction and length. But if we want to approximate a function for regression or a separation hyperplanes for classification by a linear operation then we need another element which corresponds to a constant translation part in a linear transformation: z = w1*x1 + w2*x2 + const.. Take a simple function y=w*x + c. The “c” controls where the line crosses the y axis. We need such a parameter if our line should separate clusters of points separably distributed somewhere in the (x,y)-plane; the w is not sufficient to orientate and position the hyperplane in the (x,y)-plane.

This very basically what bias neurons are good for regarding the basically linear operation between two MLP-layers. They add a constant to an otherwise linear transformation.

Do we need a bias node on all layers? Definitely on the input layer. However, on the hidden layers a trained network could by learning evolve weights in such a way that a bias neuron comes about – with almost zero weights on one side. At least in principle; however, we make it easier for the MLP to converge by providing explicit “bias” neurons.

What did we do to account for bias nodes in our Python code so far? We extended the matrices describing the output arrays ay_A_out of the activation function (for input ay_Z_in) on the input and all hidden layers by elements of an additional row. This was done by the method “add_bias_neuron_to_layer()” – see the codes given in article III.

The important point is that our weight matrices already got a corresponding dimension when we built them; i.e. we defined weights for the bias nodes, too. Of course, during optimization we must calculate partial derivatives of the cost function with respect to these weights.

The problem is:

We need to back propagate a delta-matrix Nδ for layer N via
( (NW.T).dot(Nδ) ). But then we can not apply a simple element-wise matrix multiplication with the (N-1)D(z)-matrix at layer N-1. Reason: The dimensions do not fit, if we calculate the elements of D only for the existing Z-Values at layer N-1.

There are two solutions for coding:

  • We can add a row artificially and intermediately to the Z-matrix to calculate the D-matrix, then calculate NδS as
    ( (NW.T).dot(Nδ) ) * (N_1)D
    and eliminate the first artificial row appearing in NδS afterwards.
  • The other option is to reduce the weight-matrix (NW) by a row intermediately and restore it again afterwards.

What we do is a matter of efficiency; in our coding we shall follow the first way and test the difference to the second way afterwards.

Check the matrix dimensions

As all steps to back-propagate and to circumvent the pitfalls require a bit of matrix wizardry we should at least check at every step during EBP backward-propagation that the dimensions of the involved matrices fit each other.


Guys, after having explained some of the matrix math in the previous article of this series and the problems we have to tackle whilst programming the EBP-algorithm we are eventually well prepared to add EBP-methods to our Python class for MLP simulation. We are going to to this in the next article:
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – VIII – coding Error Backward Propagation


“Machine Learning – An Applied Mathematics Introduction”, Paul Wilmott, 2019, Panda Ohana Publishing

A simple Python program for an ANN to cover the MNIST dataset – VI – the math behind the “error back-propagation”

I continue with my article series on how to program a training algorithm for a multi-layer perceptron [MLP]. In the course of my last articles

A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – V – coding the loss function
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – IV – the concept of a cost or loss function
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – III – forward propagation
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – II – initial random weight values
A simple program for an ANN to cover the Mnist dataset – I – a starting point

we have already created code for the “Feed Forward Propagation” algorithm [FFPA] and two different cost functions – “Log Loss” and “MSE”. In both cases we took care of a vectorized handling of multiple data records in mini-batches of training data.

Before we turn to the coding of the so called “error back-propagation” [EBP], I found it usefull to clarify the math behind behind this method for ANN/MLP-training. Understanding the basic principles of the gradient descent method for the optimization of MLP-weights is easy. But comprehending

  • why and how gradient descent method leads to the back propagation of error terms
  • and how we cover multiple training data records at the same time

is not – at least not in my opinion. So, I have discussed the required analysis and resulting algorithmic steps in detail in a PDF which you find attached to this article. I used a four layer MLP as an example for which I derived the partial derivatives of the “Log Loss” cost function for weights of the hidden layers in detail. I afterwards generalized the formalism. I hope the contents of the PDF will help beginners in the field of ML to understand what kind of matrix operations gradient descent leads to.

PDF on the math behind Error Back_Propagation

In the next article we shall encode the surprisingly compact algorithm for EBP. In the meantime I wish all readers Merry Christmas …

Addendum 01.01.2020 / 23.02.2020 : Corrected a missing “-” for the cost function and resulting terms in the above PDF.