Back Propagation with TensorFlow

Posted April 26, 2016 ‐ 5 min read

(Updated for TensorFlow 1.0 on March 6th, 2017)

When I first read about neural network in Michael Nielsen's Neural Networks and Deep Learning, I was excited to find a good source that explains the material along with actual code. However there was a rather steep jump in the part that describes the basic math and the part that goes about implementing it, and it was especially apparent in the numpy-based code that implements backward propagation.

So, in order to explain it better to myself, and learn about TensorFlow in the process, I took it upon myself to implement the first network in the book using TensorFlow by two means. First, manually defining the back propagation step, and the second - letting TensorFlow do the hard work using automatic differentiation.


First, we need to load TensorFlow and setup the basic parts of the graph - inputs (a_0, y), and states (w_1, b_1, w_2, b_2).

#!/usr/bin/env python

import tensorflow
import tensorflow as tf

from tensorflow.examples.tutorials.mnist import input_data
mnist = input_data.read_data_sets("MNIST_data/", one_hot=True)

a_0 = tf.placeholder(tf.float32, [None, 784])
y = tf.placeholder(tf.float32, [None, 10])

middle = 30
w_1 = tf.Variable(tf.truncated_normal([784, middle]))
b_1 = tf.Variable(tf.truncated_normal([1, middle]))
w_2 = tf.Variable(tf.truncated_normal([middle, 10]))
b_2 = tf.Variable(tf.truncated_normal([1, 10]))

The sigmoid function

Our sigmoid function, although provided by TensorFlow's extensive function library, is brought here as reference:

$$ \sigma(z) = \frac{1}{1+e^{-z}} $$

def sigma(x):
    return tf.div(tf.constant(1.0),
                  tf.add(tf.constant(1.0), tf.exp(tf.negative(x))))

The forward propagation

Provided that the input image is given by the \( a_0 \) matrix, calculating forward propagation for multiple images at a time can be done with simple matrix multiplication, defined as such:

Given a tensor of multiple images, this can done in TensorFlow for all them at the same time (thanks to 'broadcasting'), so the above gets a one-to-one translation in TensorFlow:

z_1 = tf.add(tf.matmul(a_0, w_1), b_1)
a_1 = sigma(z_1)
z_2 = tf.add(tf.matmul(a_1, w_2), b_2)
a_2 = sigma(z_2)


The input provides \( y \) as the test for the accuracy of the network's output, so we compute the following vector:

diff = tf.subtract(a_2, y)

The sigmoid prime function

Here's the derivate of the sigmoid function from above, which will be needed during the backward propagation:

$$ \sigma'(z) = \sigma(z)(1 - \sigma(z)) $$

def sigmaprime(x):
    return tf.multiply(sigma(x), tf.subtract(tf.constant(1.0), sigma(x)))

Backward propagation

The most complicated part is the backward propagation. First, we need to compute the deltas of the weights and biases. In the original book the Python code was a bit puzzling, but here we can describe the same algorithm in a functional, stateless way.

It's also one-to-one with:

d_z_2 = tf.multiply(diff, sigmaprime(z_2))
d_b_2 = d_z_2
d_w_2 = tf.matmul(tf.transpose(a_1), d_z_2)

d_a_1 = tf.matmul(d_z_2, tf.transpose(w_2))
d_z_1 = tf.multiply(d_a_1, sigmaprime(z_1))
d_b_1 = d_z_1
d_w_1 = tf.matmul(tf.transpose(a_0), d_z_1)

Updating the network

We take the computed \( \nabla \) and update the weights in one step. Note that the following does not precisely match the book - I have omitted the constant \( 1/n \) divider. For simplicity, it's not really needed, as it comes into play inside the \( \eta \) itself, in this case.

In TensorFlow, it can translate to a list of a assignments:

eta = tf.constant(0.5)
step = [
            tf.subtract(w_1, tf.multiply(eta, d_w_1)))
  , tf.assign(b_1,
            tf.subtract(b_1, tf.multiply(eta,
                               tf.reduce_mean(d_b_1, axis=[0]))))
  , tf.assign(w_2,
            tf.subtract(w_2, tf.multiply(eta, d_w_2)))
  , tf.assign(b_2,
            tf.subtract(b_2, tf.multiply(eta,
                               tf.reduce_mean(d_b_2, axis=[0]))))

Running and testing the training process

The following will be able to train the network and test it in the meanwhile, using mini-batches of 10. Here, I chose to test with 1000 items from the test set, every 1000 mini-batches.

acct_mat = tf.equal(tf.argmax(a_2, 1), tf.argmax(y, 1))
acct_res = tf.reduce_sum(tf.cast(acct_mat, tf.float32))

sess = tf.InteractiveSession()

for i in xrange(10000):
    batch_xs, batch_ys = mnist.train.next_batch(10), feed_dict = {a_0: batch_xs,
                                y : batch_ys})
    if i % 1000 == 0:
        res =, feed_dict =
                       {a_0: mnist.test.images[:1000],
                        y : mnist.test.labels[:1000]})
        print res

Running it shows that it manages to train the network, as we quickly get 923 correct out of 1000 tests.

Extracting MNIST_data/train-images-idx3-ubyte.gz
Extracting MNIST_data/train-labels-idx1-ubyte.gz
Extracting MNIST_data/t10k-images-idx3-ubyte.gz
Extracting MNIST_data/t10k-labels-idx1-ubyte.gz

Automatic differentiation

The great part about TensorFlow is its ability to derive the step function on its own. So, instead of the rather complicated 'Backward propagation' and 'Updating the network' given above for educational purposes (see: backward propagation and updating), we can simply write the following step function alternative:

cost = tf.multiply(diff, diff)
step = tf.train.GradientDescentOptimizer(0.1).minimize(cost)

And observe that the training still works.

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