On the difficulty of language: prerequisites for NLP with deep learning

1 Preface

This section is virtually just my essay on language. You can skip this if you want to get down on more technical topic.

As I do not study in natural language processing (NLP) field, I would not be able to provide that deep insight into this fast changing deep leaning field throughout my article series. However at least I do understand language is a difficult and profound field, not only in engineering but also in many other study fields. Some people might be feeling that technologies are eliminating languages, or one’s motivations to understand other cultures. First of all, I would like you to keep it in mind that I am not a geek who is trying to turn this multilingual world into a homogeneous one and rebuild Tower of Babel, with deep learning. I would say I am more keen on social or anthropological sides of language.

I think you would think more about languages if you have mastered at least one foreign language. As my mother tongue is Japanese, which is totally different from many other Western languages in terms of characters and ambiguity, I understand translating is not what learning a language is all about. Each language has unique characteristics, and I believe they more or less influence one’s personalities. For example, many Western languages make the verb, I mean the conclusion, of sentences clear in the beginning part of the sentences. That is also true of Chinese, I heard. However in Japanese, the conclusion comes at the end, so that is likely to give an impression that Japanese people are being obscure or indecisive. Also, Japanese sentences usually omit their subjects. In German as well, the conclusion of a sentences tend to come at the end, but I am almost 100% sure that no Japanese people would feel German people make things unclear. I think that comes from the structures of German language, which tends to make the number, verb, relations of words crystal clear.

Let’s take an example to see how obscure Japanese is. A Japanese sentence 「頭が赤い魚を食べる猫」can be interpreted in five ways, depending on where you put emphases on.

Common sense tells you that the sentence is likely to mean the first two cases, but I am sure they can mean those five possibilities. There might be similarly obscure sentences in other languages, but I bet few languages can be as obscure as Japanese. Also as you can see from the last two sentences, you can omit subjects in Japanese. This rule is nothing exceptional. Japanese people usually don’t use subjects in normal conversations. And when you read classical Japanese, which Japanese high school students have to do just like Western students learn some of classical Latin, the writings omit subjects much more frequently.

*However interestingly we have rich vocabulary of subjects. The subject “I” can be translated to 「私」、「僕」、「俺」、「自分」、「うち」etc, depending on your personality, who you are talking to, and the time when it is written in.

I believe one can see the world only in the framework of their language, and it seems one’s personality changes depending on the language they use. I am not sure whether the language originally determines how they think, or how they think forms the language. But at least I would like you to keep it in mind that if you translate a conversation, for example a random conversation at a bar in Berlin, into Japanese, that would linguistically sound Japanese, but not anthropologically. Imagine that such kind of random conversation in Berlin or something is like playing a catch, I mean throwing a ball named “your opinion.” On the other hand,  normal conversations of Japanese people are in stead more of, I would say,  “resonance” of several tuning forks. They do their bests to show that they are listening to each other, by excessively nodding or just repeating “Really?”, but usually it seems hardly any constructive dialogues have been made.

*I sometimes feel you do not even need deep learning to simulate most of such Japanese conversations. Several-line Python codes would be enough.

My point is, this article series is mainly going to cover only a few techniques of NLP in deep learning field: sequence to sequence model (seq2seq model) , and especially Transformer. They are, at least for now, just mathematical models and mappings of a small part of this profound field of language (as far as I can cover in this article series). But still, examples of language would definitely help you understand Transformer model in the long run.

2 Tokens and word embedding

*Throughout my article series, “words” just means the normal words you use in daily life. “Tokens” means more general unit of NLP tasks. For example the word “Transformer” might be denoted as a single token “Transformer,” or maybe as a combination of two tokens “Trans” and “former.”

One challenging part of handling language data is its encodings. If you started learning programming in a language other than English, you would have encountered some troubles of using keyboards with different arrangements or with characters. Some comments on your codes in your native languages are sometimes not readable on some software. You can easily get away with that by using only English, but when it comes to NLP you have to deal with this difficulty seriously. How to encode characters in each language should be a first obstacle of NLP. In this article we are going to rely on a library named BPEmb, which provides word embedding in various languages, and you do not have to care so much about encodings in languages all over the world with this library.

In the first section, you might have noticed that Japanese sentence is not separated with spaces like Western languages. This is also true of Chinese language, and that means we need additional tasks of separating those sentences at least into proper chunks of words. This is not only a matter of engineering, but also of some linguistic fields. Also I think many people are not so conscious of how sentences in their native languages are grammatically separated.

The next point is, unlike other scientific data, such as temperature, velocity, voltage, or air pressure, language itself is not measured as numerical data. Thus in order to process language, including English, you first have to map language to certain numerical data, and after some processes you need to conversely map the output numerical data into language data. This section is going to be mainly about one-hot encoding and word embedding, the ways to convert word/token into numerical data. You might already have heard about this

You might have learnt about word embedding to some extent, but I hope you could get richer insight into this topic through this article.

2.1 One-hot encoding

One-hot encoding would be the most straightforward way to encode words/tokens. Assume that you have a dictionary whose size is |\mathcal{V}|, and it includes words from “a”, “ablation”, “actually” to “zombie”, “?”, “!”

In a mathematical manner, in order to choose a word out of those |\mathcal{V}| words, all you need is a |\mathcal{V}| dimensional vector, one of whose elements is 1, and the others are 0. When you want to choose the No. i word, which is “indeed” in the example below, its corresponding one-hot vector is \boldsymbol{v} = (0, \dots, 1, \dots, 0 ), where only the No. i element is 1. One-hot encoding is also easy to understand, and that’s all. It is easy to imagine that people have already come up with more complicated and better way to encoder words. And one major way to do that is word embedding.

2.2 Word embedding

Source: Francois Chollet, Deep Learning with Python,(2018), Manning

Actually word embedding is related to one-hot encoding, and if you understand how to train a simple neural network, for example densely connected layers, you would understand word embedding easily. The key idea of word embedding is denoting each token with a D dimensional vector, whose dimension is fewer than the vocabulary size |\mathcal{V}|. The elements of the resulting word embedding vector are real values, I mean not only 0 or 1. Obviously you can encode much richer variety of tokens with such vectors. The figure at the left side is from “Deep Learning with Python” by François Chollet, and I think this is an almost perfect and simple explanation of the comparison of one-hot encoding and word embedding. But the problem is how to get such convenient vectors. The answer is very simple: you have only to train a network whose inputs are one-hot vector of the vocabulary.

The figure below is a simplified model of word embedding of a certain word. When the word is input into a neural network, only the corresponding element of the one-hot vector is 1, and that virtually means the very first input layer is composed of one neuron whose value is 1. And the only one neuron propagates to the next D dimensional embedding layer. These weights are the very values which most other study materials call “an embedding vector.”

When you input each word into a certain network, for example RNN or Transformer, you map the input one-hot vector into the embedding layer/vector. The examples in the figure are how inputs are made when the input sentences are “You’ve got the touch” and “You’ve got the power.”   Assume that you have a dictionary of one-hot encoding, whose vocabulary is {“the”, “You’ve”, “Walberg”, “touch”, “power”, “Nights”, “got”, “Mark”, “Boogie”}, and the dimension of word embeding is 6. In this case |\mathcal{V}| = 9, D=6. When the inputs are “You’ve got the touch” or “You’ve got the power” , you put the one-hot vector corresponding to “You’ve”, “got”, “the”, “touch” or “You’ve”, “got”, “the”, “power” sequentially every time step t.

In order to get word embedding of certain vocabulary, you just need to train the network. We know that the words “actually” and “indeed” are used in similar ways in writings. Thus when we propagate those words into the embedding layer, we can expect that those embedding layers are similar. This is how we can mathematically get effective word embedding of certain vocabulary.

More interestingly, if word embedding is properly trained, you can mathematically “calculate” words. For example, \boldsymbol{v}_{king} - \boldsymbol{v}_{man} + \boldsymbol{v}_{woman} \approx \boldsymbol{v}_{queen}, \boldsymbol{v}_{Japan} - \boldsymbol{v}_{Tokyo} + \boldsymbol{v}_{Vietnam} \approx \boldsymbol{v}_{Hanoi}.

*I have tried to demonstrate this type of calculation on several word embedding, but none of them seem to work well. At least you should keep it in mind that word embedding learns complicated linear relations between words.

I should explain word embedding techniques such as word2vec in detail, but the main focus of this article is not NLP, so the points I have mentioned are enough to understand Transformer model with NLP examples in the upcoming articles.


3 Language model

Language models is one of the most straightforward, but crucial ideas in NLP. This is also a big topic, so this article is going to cover only basic points. Language model is a mathematical model of the probabilities of which words to come next, given a context. For example if you have a sentence “In the lecture, he opened a _.”, a language model predicts what comes at the part “_.” It is obvious that this is contextual. If you are talking about general university students, “_” would be “textbook,” but if you are talking about Japanese universities, especially in liberal art department, “_” would be more likely to be “smartphone. I think most of you use this language model everyday. When you type in something on your computer or smartphone, you would constantly see text predictions, or they might even correct your spelling or grammatical errors. This is language modelling. You can make language models in several ways, such as n-gram and neural language models, but in this article I can explain only general formulations for such models.

*I am not sure which algorithm is used in which services. That must be too fast changing and competitive for me to catch up.

As I mentioned in the first article series on RNN, a sentence is usually processed as sequence data in NLP. One single sentence is denoted as \boldsymbol{X} = (\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau)}), a list of vectors. The vectors are usually embedding vectors, and the (t) is the index of the order of tokens. For example the sentence “You’ve go the power.” can be expressed as \boldsymbol{X} = (\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(4)}), where \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(4)} denote “You’ve”, “got”, “the”, “power”, “.” respectively. In this case \tau = 4.

In practice a sentence \boldsymbol{X} usually includes two tokens BOS and EOS at the beginning and the end of the sentence. They mean “Beginning Of Sentence” and “End Of Sentence” respectively. Thus in many cases \boldsymbol{X} = (\boldsymbol{BOS} , \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau)}, \boldsymbol{EOS} ). \boldsymbol{BOS} and \boldsymbol{EOS} are also both vectors, at least in the Tensorflow tutorial.

P(\boldsymbol{X} = (\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau)}, \boldsymbol{EOS}) is the probability of incidence of the sentence. But it is easy to imagine that it would be very hard to directly calculate how likely the sentence \boldsymbol{X} appears out of all possible sentences. I would rather say it is impossible. Thus instead in NLP we calculate the probability P(\boldsymbol{X}) as a product of the probability of incidence or a certain word, given all the words so far. When you’ve got the words (\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(t-1}) so far, the probability of the incidence of \boldsymbol{x}^{(t)}, given the context is  P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(t)}|\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(t-1)}). P(\boldsymbol{BOS}) is a probability of the the sentence \boldsymbol{X} being (\boldsymbol{BOS}), and the probability of \boldsymbol{X} being (\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) can be decomposed this way: P(\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) = P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}|\boldsymbol{BOS})P(\boldsymbol{BOS}).

Just as well P(\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}) = P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) P( \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)})= P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}| \boldsymbol{BOS}) P( \boldsymbol{BOS}).

Hence, the general probability of incidence of a sentence \boldsymbol{X} is P(\boldsymbol{X})=P(\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau -1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau)}, \boldsymbol{EOS}) = P(\boldsymbol{EOS}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau)}) P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau)}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau - 1)}) \cdots P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}| \boldsymbol{BOS}) P(\boldsymbol{BOS}).

Let \boldsymbol{x}^{(0)} be \boldsymbol{BOS} and \boldsymbol{x}^{(\tau + 1)} be \boldsymbol{EOS}. Plus, let P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(t+1)}|\boldsymbol{X}_{[0, t]}) be P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(t+1)}|\boldsymbol{x}^{(0)}, \dots, \boldsymbol{x}^{(t)}), then P(\boldsymbol{X}) = P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(0)})\prod_{t=0}^{\tau}{P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(t+1)}|\boldsymbol{X}_{[0, t]})}. Language models calculate which words to come sequentially in this way.

Here’s a question: how would you evaluate a language model?

I would say the answer is, when the language model generates words, the more confident the language model is, the better the language model is. Given a context, when the distribution of the next word is concentrated on a certain word, we can say the language model is confident about which word to come next, given the context.

*For some people, it would be more understandable to call this “entropy.”

Let’s take the vocabulary {“the”, “You’ve”, “Walberg”, “touch”, “power”, “Nights”, “got”, “Mark”, “Boogie”} as an example. Assume that P(\boldsymbol{X}) = P(\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{You've}, \boldsymbol{got}, \boldsymbol{the}, \boldsymbol{touch}, \boldsymbol{EOS}) = P(\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(4)}, \boldsymbol{EOS})= P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(0)})\prod_{t=0}^{4}{P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(t+1)}|\boldsymbol{X}_{[0, t]})}. Given a context (\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}), the probability of incidence of \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)} is P(\boldsymbol{x}^{2}|\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}). In the figure below, the distribution at the left side is less confident because probabilities do not spread widely, on the other hand the one at the right side is more confident that next word is “got” because the distribution concentrates on “got”.

*You have to keep it in mind that the sum of all possible probability P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(2)} | \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) is 1, that is, P(\boldsymbol{the}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) + P(\boldsymbol{You've}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) + \cdots + P(\boldsymbol{Boogie}| \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}) = 1.

While the language model generating the sentence “BOS You’ve got the touch EOS”, it is better if the language model keeps being confident. If it is confident, P(\boldsymbol{X})= P(\boldsymbol{BOS}) P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}|\boldsymbol{BOS}}P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}|\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}) P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(4)}|\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}) P(\boldsymbol{EOS}|\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(4)})} gets higher. Thus (-1) \{ log_{b}{P(\boldsymbol{BOS})} + log_{b}{P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}|\boldsymbol{BOS}}) + log_{b}{P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}|\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)})} + log_{b}{P(\boldsymbol{x}^{(4)}|\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(3)})} + log_{b}{P(\boldsymbol{EOS}|\boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(1)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(2)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(3)}, \boldsymbol{x}^{(4)})} \} gets lower, where usually b=2 or b=e.

This is how to measure how confident language models are, and the indicator of the confidence is called perplexity. Assume that you have a data set for evaluation \mathcal{D} = (\boldsymbol{X}_1, \dots, \boldsymbol{X}_n, \dots, \boldsymbol{X}_{|\mathcal{D}|}), which is composed of |\mathcal{D}| sentences in total. Each sentence \boldsymbol{X}_n = (\boldsymbol{x}^{(0)})\prod_{t=0}^{\tau ^{(n)}}{P(\boldsymbol{x}_{n}^{(t+1)}|\boldsymbol{X}_{n, [0, t]})} has \tau^{(n)} tokens in total excluding \boldsymbol{BOS}, \boldsymbol{EOS}. And let |\mathcal{V}| be the size of the vocabulary of the language model. Then the perplexity of the language model is b^z, where z = \frac{-1}{|\mathcal{V}|}\sum_{n=1}^{|\mathcal{D}|}{\sum_{t=0}^{\tau ^{(n)}}{log_{b}P(\boldsymbol{x}_{n}^{(t+1)}|\boldsymbol{X}_{n, [0, t]})}. The b is usually 2 or e.

For example, assume that \mathcal{V} is vocabulary {“the”, “You’ve”, “Walberg”, “touch”, “power”, “Nights”, “got”, “Mark”, “Boogie”}. Also assume that the evaluation data set for perplexity of a language model is \mathcal{D} = (\boldsymbol{X}_1, \boldsymbol{X}_2), where \boldsymbol{X_1} =(\boldsymbol{You've}, \boldsymbol{got}, \boldsymbol{the}, \boldsymbol{touch}) \boldsymbol{X_2} = (\boldsymbol{You've}, \boldsymbol{got}, \boldsymbol{the }, \boldsymbol{power}). In this case |\mathcal{V}|=9, |\mathcal{D}|=2. I have already showed you how to calculate the perplexity of the sentence “You’ve got the touch.” above. You just need to do a similar thing on another sentence “You’ve got the power”, and then you can get the perplexity of the language model.

*If the network is not properly trained, it would also be confident of generating wrong outputs. However, such network still would give high perplexity because it is “confident” at any rate. I’m sorry I don’t know how to tackle the problem. Please let me put this aside, and let’s get down on Transformer model soon.


Let’s see how word embedding is implemented with a very simple example in the official Tensorflow tutorial. It is a simple binary classification task on IMDb Dataset. The dataset is composed to comments on movies by movie critics, and you have only to classify if the commentary is positive or negative about the movie. For example when you get you get an input “To be honest, Michael Bay is a terrible as an action film maker. You cannot understand what is going on during combat scenes, and his movies rely too much on advertisements. I got a headache when Mark Walberg used a Chinese cridit card in Texas. However he is very competent when it comes to humorous scenes. He is very talented as a comedy director, and I have to admit I laughed a lot.“, the neural netowork has to judge whether the statement is positive or negative.

This networks just takes an average of input embedding vectors and regress it into a one dimensional value from 0 to 1. The shape of embedding layer is (8185, 16). Weights of neural netowrks are usually implemented as matrices, and you can see that each row of the matrix corresponds to emmbedding vector of each token.

*It is easy to imagine that this technique is problematic. This network virtually taking a mean of input embedding vectors. That could mean if the input sentence includes relatively many tokens with negative meanings, it is inclined to be classified as negative. But for example, if the sentence is “This masterpiece is a dark comedy by Charlie Chaplin which depicted stupidity of the evil tyrant gaining power in the time. It thoroughly mocked Germany in the time as an absurd group of fanatics, but such propaganda could have never been made until ‘Casablanca.'” , this can be classified as negative, because only the part “masterpiece” is positive as a token, and there are much more words with negative meanings themselves.

The official Tensorflow tutorial provides visualization of word embedding with Embedding Projector, but I would like you to take more control over the data by yourself. Please just copy and paste the codes below, installing necessary libraries. You would get a map of vocabulary used in the text classification task. It seems you cannot find clear tendency of the clusters of the tokens. You can try other dimension reduction methods to get maps of the vocabulary by for example using Scikit Learn.

import tensorflow as tf
from tensorflow import keras
from tensorflow.keras import layers
import tensorflow_datasets as tfds

(train_data, test_data), info = tfds.load(
    split = (tfds.Split.TRAIN, tfds.Split.TEST), 
    with_info=True, as_supervised=True)

train_batches = train_data.shuffle(1000).padded_batch(10)
test_batches = test_data.shuffle(1000).padded_batch(10)


encoder = info.features['text'].encoder

model = keras.Sequential([
  layers.Embedding(encoder.vocab_size, embedding_dim),
  layers.Dense(16, activation='relu'),

print("\n\nThe size of the vocabulary generated from IMDb Dataset is " + str(encoder.vocab_size) + '\n\n')



history = model.fit(
    validation_data=test_batches, validation_steps=20)

word_embedding_vectors = model.layers[0].get_weights()[0]

print("\n\nThe shape of the trained weigths of the embedding layer is " + str(word_embedding_vectors.shape) + '\n\n')

from sklearn.manifold import TSNE
X_reduced = TSNE(n_components = 2, init='pca', random_state=0).fit_transform(word_embedding_vectors)

import numpy as np
embedding_dict = zip(encoder.subwords, np.arange(len(encoder.subwords)))
embedding_dict = dict(embedding_dict)

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

plt.figure(figsize=(60, 45))
plt.scatter(X_reduced[:, 0], X_reduced[:, 1])

for i in range(0, len(encoder.subwords), 5):
    plt.text(X_reduced[i, 0], X_reduced[i, 1], encoder.subwords[i], fontsize=20, color='red')
plt.title("The map of vocabulary of IMDb Dataset mapped to a 2 dimensional space by t-SNE", fontsize=60)






Instructions on Transformer for people outside NLP field, but with examples of NLP

I found it quite difficult to explain mathematical details of long short-term memory (LSTM) in my previous article series. But when I was studying LSTM, a new promising algorithm was already attracting attentions. The algorithm is named Transformer. Its algorithm was a first announced in a paper named “Attention Is All You Need,” and it outperformed conventional translation algorithms with lower computational costs.

In this article series, I am going to provide explanations on minimum prerequisites for understanding deep learning in NLP (natural language process) tasks, but NLP is not the main focus of this article series, and actually I do not study in NLP field. I think Transformer is going to be a new major model of deep learning as well as CNN or RNN, and the model is now being applied in various fields.

Even though Transformer is going to be a very general deep learning model, I still believe it would be an effective way to understand Transformer with some NLP because language is a good topic we have in common. Unlike my previous article series, in which I tried to explain theoretical side of RNN as precisely as possible, in this article I am going to focus on practical stuff with my toy implementations of NLP tasks, largely based on Tensorflow official tutorial. But still I will do my best to make it as straightforward as possible to understand the architecture of Transformer with various original figures.

This series is going to be composed of the articles below.

If you are in the field and can read the codes in the official tutorial with no questions, this article series is not for you, but if you want to see how a Transformer works but do not want to go too much into details of NLP, this article would be for you.

Simple RNN

Prerequisites for understanding RNN at a more mathematical level

Writing the A gentle introduction to the tiresome part of understanding RNN Article Series on recurrent neural network (RNN) is nothing like a creative or ingenious idea. It is quite an ordinary topic. But still I am going to write my own new article on this ordinary topic because I have been frustrated by lack of sufficient explanations on RNN for slow learners like me.

I think many of readers of articles on this website at least know that RNN is a type of neural network used for AI tasks, such as time series prediction, machine translation, and voice recognition. But if you do not understand how RNNs work, especially during its back propagation, this blog series is for you.

After reading this articles series, I think you will be able to understand RNN in more mathematical and abstract ways. But in case some of the readers are allergic or intolerant to mathematics, I tried to use as little mathematics as possible.

Ideal prerequisite knowledge:

  • Some understanding on densely connected layers (or fully connected layers, multilayer perception) and how their forward/back propagation work.
  •  Some understanding on structure of Convolutional Neural Network.

*In this article “Densely Connected Layers” is written as “DCL,” and “Convolutional Neural Network” as “CNN.”

1, Difficulty of Understanding RNN

I bet a part of difficulty of understanding RNN comes from the variety of its structures. If you search “recurrent neural network” on Google Image or something, you will see what I mean. But that cannot be helped because RNN enables a variety of tasks.

Another major difficulty of understanding RNN is understanding its back propagation algorithm. I think some of you found it hard to understand chain rules in calculating back propagation of densely connected layers, where you have to make the most of linear algebra. And I have to say backprop of RNN, especially LSTM, is a monster of chain rules. I am planing to upload not only a blog post on RNN backprop, but also a presentation slides with animations to make it more understandable, in some external links.

In order to avoid such confusions, I am going to introduce a very simplified type of RNN, which I call a “simple RNN.” The RNN displayed as the head image of this article is a simple RNN.

2, How Neurons are Connected

    \begin{equation*}   1 = 3 - 2 \end{equation*}

How to connect neurons and how to activate them is what neural networks are all about. Structures of those neurons are easy to grasp as long as that is about DCL or CNN. But when it comes to the structure of RNN, many study materials try to avoid showing that RNNs are also connections of neurons, as well as DCL or CNN(*If you are not sure how neurons are connected in CNN, this link should be helpful. Draw a random digit in the square at the corner.). In fact the structure of RNN is also the same, and as long as it is a simple RNN, and it is not hard to visualize its structure.

Even though RNN is also connections of neurons, usually most RNN charts are simplified, using blackboxes. In case of simple RNN, most study material would display it as the chart below.

But that also cannot be helped because fancier RNN have more complicated connections of neurons, and there are no longer advantages of displaying RNN as connections of neurons, and you would need to understand RNN in more abstract way, I mean, as you see in most of textbooks.

I am going to explain details of simple RNN in the next article of this series.

3, Neural Networks as Mappings

If you still think that neural networks are something like magical spider webs or models of brain tissues, forget that. They are just ordinary mappings.

If you have been allergic to mathematics in your life, you might have never heard of the word “mapping.” If so, at least please keep it in mind that the equation y=f(x), which most people would have seen in compulsory education, is a part of mapping. If you get a value x, you get a value y corresponding to the x.

But in case of deep learning, x is a vector or a tensor, and it is denoted with \boldsymbol{x} . If you have never studied linear algebra , imagine that a vector is a column of Excel data (only one column), a matrix is a sheet of Excel data (with some rows and columns), and a tensor is some sheets of Excel data (each sheet does not necessarily contain only one column.)

CNNs are mainly used for image processing, so their inputs are usually image data. Image data are in many cases (3, hight, width) tensors because usually an image has red, blue, green channels, and the image in each channel can be expressed as a hight*width matrix (the “height” and the “width” are number of pixels, so they are discrete numbers).

The convolutional part of CNN (which I call “feature extraction part”) maps the tensors to a vector, and the last part is usually DCL, which works as classifier/regressor. At the end of the feature extraction part, you get a vector. I call it a “semantic vector” because the vector has information of “meaning” of the input image. In this link you can see maps of pictures plotted depending on the semantic vector. You can see that even if the pictures are not necessarily close pixelwise, they are close in terms of the “meanings” of the images.

In the example of a dog/cat classifier introduced by François Chollet, the developer of Keras, the CNN maps (3, 150, 150) tensors to 2-dimensional vectors, (1, 0) or (0, 1) for (dog, cat).

Wrapping up the points above, at least you should keep two points in mind: first, DCL is a classifier or a regressor, and CNN is a feature extractor used for image processing. And another important thing is, feature extraction parts of CNNs map images to vectors which are more related to the “meaning” of the image.

Importantly, I would like you to understand RNN this way. An RNN is also just a mapping.

*I recommend you to at least take a look at the beautiful pictures in this link. These pictures give you some insight into how CNN perceive images.

4, Problems of DCL and CNN, and needs for RNN

Taking an example of RNN task should be helpful for this topic. Probably machine translation is the most famous application of RNN, and it is also a good example of showing why DCL and CNN are not proper for some tasks. Its algorithms is out of the scope of this article series, but it would give you a good insight of some features of RNN. I prepared three sentences in German, English, and Japanese, which have the same meaning. Assume that each sentence is divided into some parts as shown below and that each vector corresponds to each part. In machine translation we want to convert a set of the vectors into another set of vectors.

Then let’s see why DCL and CNN are not proper for such task.

  • The input size is fixed: In case of the dog/cat classifier I have mentioned, even though the sizes of the input images varies, they were first molded into (3, 150, 150) tensors. But in machine translation, usually the length of the input is supposed to be flexible.
  • The order of inputs does not mater: In case of the dog/cat classifier the last section, even if the input is “cat,” “cat,” “dog” or “dog,” “cat,” “cat” there’s no difference. And in case of DCL, the network is symmetric, so even if you shuffle inputs, as long as you shuffle all of the input data in the same way, the DCL give out the same outcome . And if you have learned at least one foreign language, it is easy to imagine that the orders of vectors in sequence data matter in machine translation.

*It is said English language has phrase structure grammar, on the other hand Japanese language has dependency grammar. In English, the orders of words are important, but in Japanese as long as the particles and conjugations are correct, the orders of words are very flexible. In my impression, German grammar is between them. As long as you put the verb at the second position and the cases of the words are correct, the orders are also relatively flexible.

5, Sequence Data

We can say DCL and CNN are not useful when you want to process sequence data. Sequence data are a type of data which are lists of vectors. And importantly, the orders of the vectors matter. The number of vectors in sequence data is usually called time steps. A simple example of sequence data is meteorological data measured at a spot every ten minutes, for instance temperature, air pressure, wind velocity, humidity. In this case the data is recorded as 4-dimensional vector every ten minutes.

But this “time step” does not necessarily mean “time.” In case of natural language processing (including machine translation), which you I mentioned in the last section, the numberings of each vector denoting each part of sentences are “time steps.”

And RNNs are mappings from a sequence data to another sequence data.

*At least I found a paper on the RNN’s capability of universal approximation on many-to-one RNN task. But I have not found any papers on universal approximation of many-to-many RNN tasks. Please let me know if you find any clue on whether such approximation is possible. I am desperate to know that. 

6, Types of RNN Tasks

RNN tasks can be classified into some types depending on the lengths of input/output sequences (the “length” means the times steps of input/output sequence data).

If you want to predict the temperature in 24 hours, based on several time series data points in the last 96 hours, the task is many-to-one. If you sample data every ten minutes, the input size is 96*6=574 (the input data is a list of 574 vectors), and the output size is 1 (which is a value of temperature). Another example of many-to-one task is sentiment classification. If you want to judge whether a post on SNS is positive or negative, the input size is very flexible (the length of the post varies.) But the output size is one, which is (1, 0) or (0, 1), which denotes (positive, negative).

*The charts in this section are simplified model of RNN used for each task. Please keep it in mind that they are not 100% correct, but I tried to make them as exact as possible compared to those in other study materials.

Music/text generation can be one-to-many tasks. If you give the first sound/word you can generate a phrase.

Next, let’s look at many-to-many tasks. Machine translation and voice recognition are likely to be major examples of many-to-many tasks, but here name entity recognition seems to be a proper choice. Name entity recognition is task of finding proper noun in a sentence . For example if you got two sentences “He said, ‘Teddy bears on sale!’ ” and ‘He said, “Teddy Roosevelt was a great president!” ‘ judging whether the “Teddy” is a proper noun or a normal noun is name entity recognition.

Machine translation and voice recognition, which are more popular, are also many-to-many tasks, but they use more sophisticated models. In case of machine translation, the inputs are sentences in the original language, and the outputs are sentences in another language. When it comes to voice recognition, the input is data of air pressure at several time steps, and the output is the recognized word or sentence. Again, these are out of the scope of this article but I would like to introduce the models briefly.

Machine translation uses a type of RNN named sequence-to-sequence model (which is often called seq2seq model). This model is also very important for other natural language processes tasks in general, such as text summarization. A seq2seq model is divided into the encoder part and the decoder part. The encoder gives out a hidden state vector and it used as the input of the decoder part. And decoder part generates texts, using the output of the last time step as the input of next time step.

Voice recognition is also a famous application of RNN, but it also needs a special type of RNN.

*To be honest, I don’t know what is the state-of-the-art voice recognition algorithm. The example in this article is a combination of RNN and a collapsing function made using Connectionist Temporal Classification (CTC). In this model, the output of RNN is much longer than the recorded words or sentences, so a collapsing function reduces the output into next output with normal length.

You might have noticed that RNNs in the charts above are connected in both directions. Depending on the RNN tasks you need such bidirectional RNNs.  I think it is also easy to imagine that such networks are necessary. Again, machine translation is a good example.

And interestingly, image captioning, which enables a computer to describe a picture, is one-to-many-task. As the output is a sentence, it is easy to imagine that the output is “many.” If it is a one-to-many task, the input is supposed to be a vector.

Where does the input come from? I told you that I was obsessed with the beauty of the last vector of the feature extraction part of CNN. Surprisingly the the “beautiful” vector, which I call a “semantic vector” is the input of image captioning task (after some transformations, depending on the network models).

I think this articles includes major things you need to know as prerequisites when you want to understand RNN at more mathematical level. In the next article, I would like to explain the structure of a simple RNN, and how it forward propagate.

* I make study materials on machine learning, sponsored by DATANOMIQ. I do my best to make my content as straightforward but as precise as possible. I include all of my reference sources. If you notice any mistakes in my materials, please let me know (email: yasuto.tamura@datanomiq.de). And if you have any advice for making my materials more understandable to learners, I would appreciate hearing it.