Programming Models for Deep Learning and Deep Learning Frameworks

incl. Backpropagation

with examples in Theano and TensorFlow

Model specification

(from mxnet documentation)

  • per configuration
    • inflexible, just reuse of common building blocks
    • examples: Caffe, CNTK
  • programmatic
    • flexible, programming of building blocks possible
    • examples: Torch, Theano, Tensorflow, MXnet

Two (programmatic) approaches:

(from mxnet documentation)

  • imperative
  • symbolic


Imperative style programs conduct the computation as we run them.

In [1]:
import numpy as np
a = np.ones(10)
b = np.ones(10) * 2
c = b * a # when the programs execute to c = b * a, 
        #it runs the actual computation.
d = c + 1  


A = Variable('A')
B = Variable('B')
C = B * A
D = C + Constant(1)
# compiles the function
f = compile(D)
d = f(A=np.ones(10), B=np.ones(10)*2)

Computational Graph

The difference in symbolic programs is when C = B * A is executed, there is no actual computation happening. Instead, these operations generate a computation graph (symbolic graph) that represents the computation it described.

  • A and B are symbolic variables or symbols
In [2]:
from IPython.display import Image
Image(filename='./pics/comp_graph.png', height=400)
# image from the mxnet documentation 

Most symbolic style programs contain, either explicitly or implicitly, a compile step.


In [42]:
import theano.tensor as T
from theano import function

# in theano each symbolic variable must be assigned a tensor (shape) type and data type
A = T.dscalar('A') # default of dtype is floatX
print ("A.dtype:", A.dtype)
B = T.dscalar('B')
C = T.mul(B, A)
D = C + 1
f = function(inputs=[A, B], outputs=D) # compile a function
('A.dtype:', 'float64')
In [4]:
In [5]:
# implicit compilation with theano
Z = T.add(A+B) * 3.
Z.eval({A:2., B:5.})


In [6]:
import tensorflow as tf

# if no graph is specified the default graph is used
# tf.placeholder for defining symbolic variables 
A = tf.placeholder(name="A", dtype=tf.float32)
B = tf.placeholder(name="B", dtype=tf.float32)
C = tf.mul(B, A, name="multiplication")
D = C + 1
In [7]:
with tf.Session() as sess:
    result =[D], feed_dict={A:1., B:[2.]})
[array([ 3.], dtype=float32)]
In [8]:

Graph in Tensorflow

In [9]:
g = tf.get_default_graph()
[ for op in g.get_operations()]
[u'A', u'B', u'multiplication', u'add/y', u'add']
In [10]:
# write the definition of the graph to the log file
writer = tf.train.SummaryWriter("./tmp/graph_logs", 

Lanch tensorboard on the commandline:

>tensorboard --logdir=tmp/graph_logs/

Starting TensorBoard 23 on port 6006
(You can navigate to

simple addition graph

Shared Variables

In Neural Networks learning is (mostly) optimization of parameters.

Values of variables are hold during execution of the computational graphs.

e.g. with a numpy array W_value.

  • Theano: Shared Variables
    weights = theano.shared(value=W_values, name='weights')

  • Tensorflow: Variables
    weights = tf.Variable(initial_value=W_values, name='weights') create a new variable every time it is called
    weights = tf.get_variable(name='weights', initializer= ) also be used for weight sharing

Name and Variable Scope

Note: In tensorflow the names of variables and operators can be automatically prefixed (hierarchically) by

with tf.name_scope("first_layer") as scope:

The names of the variables (tf.get_variable(..)!) (and operators) can be automatically prefixed (hierarchically) by

with tf.variable_scope("first_layer") as scope:

  • reuse=False: gives an exception if a variable name is used again.
  • reuse=True: for sharing weights.

for the difference between tf.name_scope and tf.variable_scope see e.g. stackoverflow

In [11]:
with tf.variable_scope("foo"):
    with tf.variable_scope("bar", reuse=None):
        q = tf.get_variable(name="q", shape=[1])
assert == "foo/bar/q:0"

with tf.name_scope("foo"):
    with tf.variable_scope("bar", reuse=None):
        p = tf.Variable(name='p', initial_value=[1])
        u = tf.get_variable(name='u', shape=[1]) # the foo sope is ignored
print (
print (


Python and numpy numbers are wrapped automatically in the constant type. Here explicit with a name for the constants:

  • Theano

    T.constant(np.ones([2,3]), name="a_constant")

  • Tensorflow

    tf.constant(np.ones([2,3]), name="a_constant")


Imperative Programs

  • (mostly) more flexible
In [12]:
x = 2
k = 10
result = 1
# compute x**k by a python loop
for i in range(k):
    result = result * x
print (result)

Python for-loop can not be used directly in the symbolic API. (Loops may not readily supported by some symbolic API).

Loops in Theano

In Theano and TensorFlow the scan-Operator is used for loops.

Theano example from

In [13]:
import theano
import theano.tensor as T

k = T.iscalar("k")
A = T.iscalar("A")

There are three things here that we need to handle:

  1. the initial value assigned to result
  2. the accumulation of results in result, and
  3. the unchanging variable A. Unchanging variables are passed to scan as non_sequences. Initialization occurs in outputs_info, and the accumulation happens automatically.
In [14]:
# Symbolic description of the result
result, updates = theano.scan(fn=lambda prior_result, A: prior_result 
                                                          * A,
In [15]:
# Note that the result is not a matrix, but a 3D tensor containing the value of A**k for each step. 
# We want the last value (after k steps) so we compile a function to return just that.

# We only care about A**k, but scan has provided us with A**1 through A**k.
# Discard the values that we don't care about. Scan is smart enough to
# notice this and not waste memory saving them.
final_result = result[-1]

# compiled function that returns A**k
power = theano.function(inputs=[A, k], 
                        outputs=final_result, updates=updates)

# note A is a T.vector, as input a np-vector or a python list is OK:
print (power(2, 10))

Function that is given to scan:

  • fn=lambda prior_result, A: prior_result * A

The order of parameters is fixed by scan: the output of the prior call to fn (or the initial value, initially) is the first parameter, followed by all non-sequences.

In [16]:
# Example compute x**k by a python loop
k = 10
x = 2
out = tf.scan(lambda previous_output, current_input: 
              previous_output * current_input, 
              tf.fill([k], x), initializer=tf.constant(1)) 

with tf.Session() as sess:
In [17]:
# example cummulative sum
elems = tf.Variable([1.0, 2.0, 2.0, 2.0])
elems = tf.identity(elems)
initializer = tf.constant(0.0)
out = tf.scan(lambda previous_output, current_input: previous_output + current_input, 
              elems, initializer=initializer)

with tf.Session() as sess:
[ 1.  3.  5.  7.]
In [18]:

Symbolic programs vs. imperative programs (as native python)

from the nxnet documentation

If you are writing a symbolic programs in python, you are NOT writing in python. Instead, you actually write a domain specific language defined by the symbolic API. The symbolic APIs are more powerful version of DSL that generates the computation graphs or configuration of neural nets. In that sense, the config-file input libraries are all symbolic.

Because imperative programs are actually more native than the symbolic ones, it is easier to use native language features and inject them into computation flow. Such as printing out the values in the middle of computation, and use conditioning and loop in host language.

Symbolic programs are more efficient in memory and runtime.

  • intermediate values of computation are invisible to the user
  • re-use memory by in-place computation.

Optimization that symbolic programs can do is operation folding.

The way optimizations work in Theano is by identifying and replacing certain patterns in the graph with other specialized patterns that produce the same results but are either faster or more stable.

In the above programs, the multiplication and addition can be folded into one operation. Which is represented in the following graph. This means one GPU kernel (e.g. cuda kernel) will be executed(instead of two) if the computation runs on GPU. Doing so will improve the computation efficiency.

In [19]:
from IPython.display import Image
Image(filename='./pics/comp_graph_fold.png', height=400)
# from the mx net documentation

Gradient Calculation by Backpropagation

  • for efficient calculation of the gradient

If for each operator the (partial) derivative is defined, gradients of the computation graph can be computated automatically by backpropagation (application of the chain rule).

(Recursive application) of the chain rule

Chain rule for a function $c(b(w))$ ($c$ is a function of $b$ and $b$ is a function of $w$):

$$ \frac{\partial c(b(w))}{\partial w} = \frac{\partial c(b(w))}{\partial b} \frac{\partial b(w)}{\partial w} $$

Sum rule and product rule

if $b$ is not a function of $u$:

$$ \frac{ \partial (a b)}{\partial u} = \frac{\partial a}{\partial u} b + a \frac{\partial b}{\partial u} = \frac{\partial a}{\partial u} b $$$$ \frac{ \partial (a(u) + b)}{\partial u} = \frac{\partial a}{\partial u} $$


If we have a computational graph to compute $c$ and two parameters in the graph $v$ and $w$, e.g. the following computational graph:

                    o1 (name='c')
                   / \
                  /   \
                 /     z
               o2 (name='b')
              / \
             /   \ 
            /     y
          o3 (name='a')
         / \
        /   \ 
       w     v

o1,o2 and o3 are arbitrary operators, $y$ and $z$ and branches of the tree.

And we want to compute the two partial derivatives $\frac{\partial c(b(a(w, v)))}{\partial w}$ and $\frac{\partial c(b(a(w, v)))}{\partial v}$.

Note that the application of the chain rule results in:

$$ \frac{\partial c(b(a(w, v)))}{\partial w} = \frac{\partial c(b)}{\partial b}\frac{\partial b(a)}{\partial a} \frac{\partial a(w,v)}{\partial w} $$$$ \frac{\partial c(b(a(w, v)))}{\partial v} = \frac{\partial c(b)}{\partial b}\frac{\partial b(a)}{\partial a} \frac{\partial a(w,v)}{\partial v} $$

The first two factors of both expressions are the same. So we need to compute them only once. That's the key idea of back propagation. We need to compute such factors only once and can backpropagate them through the graph.

Example for the given operator graph:
Assume e.g. o1 and o3 is a multiplication and o2 is an add-Operator. Application of the chain rule ($z$ is not a function of $w$):

$$ \frac{\partial c}{\partial w} = \frac{\partial c(b)}{\partial b}\frac{\partial b(w)}{\partial w} = z \frac{\partial (b(w))}{\partial w} $$$$ \frac{\partial (b(a(w)))}{\partial w} = \frac{\partial (b(a))}{\partial a} \frac{\partial a(w)}{\partial w}= \frac{\partial (a+y)}{\partial a} \frac{\partial a(w)}{\partial w} = 1 \frac{\partial (a(w))}{\partial w} $$$$ \frac{\partial (a(w))}{\partial w} = \frac{\partial (wv))}{\partial w} = v $$

Example implementation of autodiff (imperative)

Reverse mode differentiation.

Multivariable Chain Rule

$$ \frac{\partial}{\partial t} f(x(t), y(t)) = \frac{\partial f}{\partial x} \frac{\partial x}{\partial t}+ \frac{\partial f}{\partial y}\frac{\partial y}{\partial t} $$

If there are multiple paths to a parameter (here $t$), we must add partial derivatives ("the gradients").

We store the partial derivaties in a python dictionary.

Helper function combine_dicts for taking the multivariate chain rule into account.

In [49]:
import operator
def combine_dicts(a, b, op=operator.add):
    x = (list(a.items()) + list(b.items()) +
        [(k, op(a[k], b[k])) for k in set(b) & set(a)])
    return {x[i][0]: x[i][1] for i in range(0, len(x))}
In [50]:
a = {'a': 2, 'b':3, 'c':4}
b = {'a': 5, 'c':6, 'x':7}
combine_dicts(a, b)
{'a': 7, 'b': 3, 'c': 10, 'x': 7}
In [51]:
A = {'a':-1.3, 'b':-4, 'c':3}
B = {'b':3, 'c':4, 'd':5}
{'a': -1.3, 'b': -1, 'c': 7, 'd': 5}
In [66]:
class Scalar(object) :
    """Simple Scalar object that support autodiff."""
    def __init__(self, value, name=None):
        self.value = value
        if name:
            self.grad = lambda g : {name : g}
            self.grad = lambda g : {}
    def __add__(self, other):
        assert isinstance(other, Scalar)
        ret = Scalar(self.value + other.value)
        def grad(g):
            x = self.grad(g)
            x = combine_dicts(x, other.grad(g))
            return x
        ret.grad = grad
        return ret

    def __mul__(self, other):
        assert isinstance(other, Scalar)
        ret = Scalar(self.value * other.value)
        def grad(g):
            x = self.grad(g * other.value)
            x = combine_dicts(x, other.grad(g * self.value))
            return x
        ret.grad = grad
        return ret
    def square(self):
        ret = Scalar(self.value**2)
        def grad(g):
            x = self.grad(2.0 * self.value * g) 
            return x
        ret.grad = grad
        return ret      
                   + (name='d')
                  / \
     (d./dc = g) /   \
                /     1
               * (name='c')
              / \
(d./da = b*g)/   \ (d./db = a*g)
            /     \
           a=1     b=2

 g: backpropagated "gradient value" - in general different at each position
 starts at the root of the tree with g = 1  (d root/d root = 1)

Example: $$ d = (a * b) + 1 $$

$$ \frac{\partial d}{\partial a} = \frac{\partial (a*b+1)}{ \partial a} = b $$$$ \frac{\partial d}{\partial b} = \frac{\partial (a*b+1)}{ \partial b} = a $$
In [67]:
a = Scalar(1., 'a')
b = Scalar(2., 'b')
c = b * a 
d = c + Scalar(1.)
print (d.value)

# backpropagtion of the value 1 through the graph:
print ("derivatives of d:", d.grad(1))
('derivatives of d:', {'a': 2.0, 'b': 1.0})

Example Linear Regression with autodiff class

In [82]:
# generate some train data
x_min = -10.
x_max = 10.
m = 10

x = np.random.uniform(x_min, x_max, m)
a = 10.
c = 5.
y_noise_sigma = 3.
y = a + c * x + np.random.randn(len(x)) * y_noise_sigma
In [83]:
%matplotlib inline
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
plt.plot(x, y, "bo")
<matplotlib.text.Text at 0x124e73cd0>
In [84]:
# univariate linear regression

# train data
x_values = x
y_values = y

# start values
b_value=15.; w_value=2.

assert x_values.shape[0] == y_values.shape[0]
nb_examples = x_values.shape[0]

def linear_model_with_data(b_value, w_value, x_values, y_values):
    b = Scalar(b_value, name='b')
    w = Scalar(w_value, name='w')
    cost = Scalar(0.)
    h = []
    for x, y in zip(x_values, y_values):
        h_ = b + w * Scalar(x)
        diff = h_ + Scalar(-1.) * Scalar(y) 
        cost = cost + diff.square()
    cost = cost * Scalar(1./nb_examples)
    return h, cost

def get_linear_model(x_values, y_values):
    return lambda b_value, w_value: linear_model_with_data(
        b_value, w_value, x_values, y_values)

linear_model = get_linear_model(x_values, y_values)

h, cost = linear_model(b_value, w_value)
#print ([i.value for i in h] )
print (cost.value)
In [86]:
# gradient descent 

learning_rate = 0.01
n_iterations = 200

costs = np.ndarray([n_iterations])
for i in range(n_iterations):
    deltas = cost.grad(1.)
    #print ("derivatives of cost:", cost.grad(1.))
    b_value = b_value - learning_rate * deltas['b']
    w_value = w_value - learning_rate * deltas['w']
    h, cost = linear_model(b_value, w_value)
    costs[i] = cost.value
#print ([i.value for i in h] ) 
print (b_value, w_value)
print (cost.value)
(10.708673999655886, 4.8289678679544181)
In [87]:
plt.plot(range(n_iterations), costs)
<matplotlib.text.Text at 0x124f9b150>
In [88]:
plt.plot(x,y, "bo")

xx = np.array((-10.,10))
yy = b_value + w_value * xx
plt.plot(xx, yy, 'r-')
<matplotlib.text.Text at 0x12512ce50>

Gradients for vectorized operations

Example: Matrix Multiplication

In [31]:
# forward pass
theta = np.random.randn(6, 9)
x = np.random.randn(9, 4)
mprod =, x) # shape [6, 4]

# gradient backproped down to mprop  
grad_mprod = np.random.randn(*mprod.shape) # same shape as mprop

# Gradient calculation:
# shape of grad_theta has to be [6, 4]
grad_theta =, x.T) #.T gives the transpose of the matrix
# shape of grad_x has to be [9,4]
grad_x =, grad_mprod)

For a more thorough discussion, see [LM] and [Bay15].

Autodiff for symbolic computation

An extra graph for computing the gradient is build.

Advantage: Separated optimization of the "gradient computational graph is possible".

In [32]:
from IPython.display import Image
Image(filename='pics/comp_graph_backward.png', height=400)

Gradient calculation with theano

In [33]:
# in theano each symbolic variable must be assigned a tensor (shape) type and data type
A = T.dscalar('A') # default of dtype is floatX
print ("A.dtype:", A.dtype)
B = T.dscalar('B')
C = T.mul(B, A)
D = C + 1
f = function(inputs=[A, B], outputs=D) # compile a function
('A.dtype:', 'float64')
In [34]:
dD_dA, dD_dB = T.grad(D, wrt=[A, B])
from theano import pp
print (pp(dD_dA)) # print out the gradient prior to optimization
print (pp(dD_dB))
(fill(((B * A) + TensorConstant{1}), TensorConstant{1.0}) * B)
(fill(((B * A) + TensorConstant{1}), TensorConstant{1.0}) * A)
In [35]:
grad_a = function(inputs=[A,B], outputs=dD_dA)
grad_b = function(inputs=[A,B], outputs=dD_dB)
In [36]:
In [37]:

Gradient calculation with TensorFlow

In [38]:
# if no graph is specified the default graph is used

A = tf.placeholder(name="A", dtype=tf.float32)
B = tf.placeholder(name="B", dtype=tf.float32)
C = tf.mul(B, A, name="multiplication")
D = C + 1
In [39]:
Help on function gradients in module tensorflow.python.ops.gradients:

gradients(ys, xs, grad_ys=None, name='gradients', colocate_gradients_with_ops=False, gate_gradients=False, aggregation_method=None)
    Constructs symbolic partial derivatives of sum of `ys` w.r.t. x in `xs`.
    `ys` and `xs` are each a `Tensor` or a list of tensors.  `grad_ys`
    is a list of `Tensor`, holding the gradients received by the
    `ys`. The list must be the same length as `ys`.
    `gradients()` adds ops to the graph to output the partial
    derivatives of `ys` with respect to `xs`.  It returns a list of
    `Tensor` of length `len(xs)` where each tensor is the `sum(dy/dx)`
    for y in `ys`.
    `grad_ys` is a list of tensors of the same length as `ys` that holds
    the initial gradients for each y in `ys`.  When `grad_ys` is None,
    we fill in a tensor of '1's of the shape of y for each y in `ys`.  A
    user can provide their own initial `grad_ys` to compute the
    derivatives using a different initial gradient for each y (e.g., if
    one wanted to weight the gradient differently for each value in
    each y).
      ys: A `Tensor` or list of tensors to be differentiated.
      xs: A `Tensor` or list of tensors to be used for differentiation.
      grad_ys: Optional. A `Tensor` or list of tensors the same size as
        `ys` and holding the gradients computed for each y in `ys`.
      name: Optional name to use for grouping all the gradient ops together.
        defaults to 'gradients'.
      colocate_gradients_with_ops: If True, try colocating gradients with
        the corresponding op.
      gate_gradients: If True, add a tuple around the gradients returned
        for an operations.  This avoids some race conditions.
      aggregation_method: Specifies the method used to combine gradient terms.
        Accepted values are constants defined in the class `AggregationMethod`.
      A list of `sum(dy/dx)` for each x in `xs`.
      LookupError: if one of the operations between `x` and `y` does not
        have a registered gradient function.
      ValueError: if the arguments are invalid.

In [40]:
grad = tf.gradients(D, [A, B])
#print (grad)
with tf.Session() as sess:
    print(, feed_dict={A:5., B:3.}))
[3.0, 5.0]


Implement the univariate linear regression with tensorflow. Implement gradient descent with tf.gradients.


  • Parameters of the models are typically implemented with (shared) variables. The gradient calculation with tf.gradients works with variables in the same way as shown above.
  • To update a variable use tf.assign:
In [41]:
v = tf.Variable(0., name="v")
c = tf.constant(0.1)
new_value = tf.add(v, c)
update = tf.assign(v, new_value)
init_op = tf.initialize_all_variables()
with tf.Session() as sess:
    for _ in range(3):

Literature and Links:

Deep Learning Libraries