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Building Activation Functions for Deep Networks
Latest   Machine Learning

Building Activation Functions for Deep Networks

Last Updated on August 1, 2023 by Editorial Team

Author(s): Moshe Sipper, Ph.D.

Originally published on Towards AI.

AI-generated image (craiyon)

A basic component of a deep neural network is the activation function (AF) — a non-linear function that shapes the final output of a node (“neuron”) in the network. Common activation functions include sigmoid, hyperbolic tangent (tanh), and rectified linear unit (ReLU).

More often than not, network builders will come up with new learning algorithms, architectures, and such, while continuing to use standard AFs.

In two recent works I focused on the AFs, asking what would happen if we did change them.

In “Neural Networks with À La Carte Selection of Activation Functions”, I combined a slew of known AFs into successful network architectures. I did so by using Optuna — a state-of-the-art automatic hyperparameter optimization software framework.

So what do hyperparameters have to do with AFs? Well, ultimately, it depends on you, the coder, to define what constitutes a hyperparameter. I “gave” Optuna a list of 48 possible AFs from PyTorch:

Some of these are “officially” defined as AFs (for example, ReLU and Sigmoid), while the others are simply mathematical functions over tensors (for example, Abs and Sin). For good measure, I also threw into the mix 4 new AFs I found in the research literature.

Optuna was given this list to treat as hyperparameters. More precisely, I ran Optuna with 5-layer neural networks and with 10-layer neural networks, and Optuna’s task was to find the best-performing list of 5 or 10 AFs, respectively.

I was able to show that this method often produced significantly better results for 25 classification problems, when compared with a standard network composed of ReLU hidden units and a softmax output unit.

In “Evolution of Activation Functions for Deep Learning-Based Image Classification”, my grad student Raz Lapid and I looked into generating new AFs. We used genetic programming, a potent form of evolutionary algorithm, where graphs are evolved in a process simulating evolution by natural selection.

For example, the following graph:

represents the well-known sigmoid AF.

The evolutionary algorithm was given a set of primitives, from which to compose new AFs:

As you can see, we used as basic building blocks standard AFs as well as basic mathematical functions, setting evolution loose to discover novel — possibly potent — combinations. These latter combinations were the new AFs.

We also applied another evolutionary “trick”, using three populations of evolving AFs, rather than one; this is known as coevolution. The idea was to hold a population of AFs for the input layer, another population for the output-layer AFs, and a third population for all hidden-layer AFs. We reasoned that this made sense where neural networks are concerned:

We tested our method on four image datasets and found that coevolution (and “regular” evolution) indeed worked quite well, able to come up with good AFs, which improved network performance when compared with standard AFs. Moreover, our use of different AFs along different network stages proved beneficial.

If you’d like to learn more about evolution, I refer you to a couple of other of my Medium stories:

Evolutionary Algorithms, Genetic Programming, and Learning

Evolutionary algorithms are a family of search algorithms inspired by the process of (Darwinian) evolution in Nature…

Evolutionary Adversarial Attacks on Deep Networks

Despite their uncontested success, recent studies have shown that Deep Neural Networks (DNNs) are vulnerable to…

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