This is the paper that explains what caused the gradient vanishing or exploding problem in training neural networks. The approach was to experiment with some fabricated image datasets as well as ImageNet datasets for multi-class classifications. Then some theoretical derivation is provided to support the argument.

The setting is a neural network with 1-5 hidden layers, with 1000 units per layer and softmax logistic regression for output, i.e., \(\textrm{softmax}(Wh+b)\). The cost function in training is average log-likelihood over a minibatch, i.e.,

\[- (y_i \log p_i + (1-y_i)\log (1-p_i)) = -\log \Pr[y\mid x]\]

and the minibatch size is 10. The paper explored different types of activation function in the hidden layer; sigmoid \((1+\exp(-x))^{-1}\), hyperbolic tangent \(\tanh(x)\), and softsign \(x/(1+\lvert x\rvert)\). The initialization of weight follows the uniform distribution

\[w_{ij} \sim U[-\tfrac{1}{\sqrt{n}}, \tfrac{1}{\sqrt{n}}]\]

for \(n\) the number of columns of \(W\), i.e., number of unit in the previous layer.

Experimental findings: Sigmoid activation has the activation value at the last hidden layer quickly pushed to zero while the other layers’ value with mean above 0.5 for a long time. Hence the neurons are difficult to escape from the local satuation regime. If the weights are initialized by some pretraining, it doesn’t exhibut the saturation behavior.

The paper suggested the problem of using the sigmoid function as the following: The softmax output depends on \(b+Wh\), which \(b\) is updated faster than \(Wh\). Hence the error gradient will push \(h\) towards zero. A zero \(h\) means the output of the previous layer was in the saturated regime (which is specific to sigmoid but not the case of tanh). And at that regime, the slope of sigmoid function is flat, makes it difficult to escape.

Compared to log-likelihood, the paper also claimed the use of quadratic cost function (i.e., \(\sum_i (y_i-d_i)^2\) for all output \(y_i\) and desired state \(d_i\)) can contribute to the vanishing gradient problem because log-likelihood has steeper slope.

Bradley (2009) studied the gradient as back-propagated from output layer towards the input layer has the variance getting smaller.

Assume a dense network with symmetric activation function with unit derivative at 0, i.e.,

\[z^{(i)} = f(W^{(i)}z^{(i-1)}+b^{(i)}) = f(s^{(i)})\]

and with input as \(z^{(0)}=x\). With the cost \(C\), we have

\[\begin{aligned} \frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(i)}_k} &= \frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(i+1)}}\cdot\frac{\partial s^{(i+1)}}{\partial s^{(i)}_k} = f'(s^{(i)}_k)W^{(i+1)}_{k\,\bullet}\cdot\frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(i+1)}} \\ \frac{\partial C}{\partial w_{jk}^{(i)}} &= z_j^{(i)}\frac{\partial C}{\partial s_k^{(i)}} \end{aligned}\]

We also denote the size of layer \(i\) as \(n_i\).

Since for independent random varables \(X\) and \(Y\), we have


or for \(X_1,X_2,\cdots,X_k\) we have

\[Var(X_1X_2\cdots X_k)=\prod_i (Var(X_i)+\bar{X}_i^2) - \prod_i \bar{X}_i^2\]

(ref: Hence if \(\bar{W}=0\) and \(\bar{z}^{i-1}=0\), and assume \(f'(s^{(i)}_k)\approx 1\).

\[Var(z^{(i)}) \approx Var(W^{(i)}z^{(i-1)}) \approx n_iVar(W^{(i)})Var(z^{(i-1)})\]

Applying to all \(i\) layers,

\[Var(z^{(i)}) \approx Var(x)\prod_{j=0}^{i-1} n_j Var(W^{(j)}).\]

Similarly, the variance of the gradient (which \(d\) is the number of layers in the network),

\[\begin{aligned} Var(\frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(i)}}) &\approx Var(\frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(d)}})\prod_{j=i}^d n_{j+1}Var(W^{(j)}) \\ Var(\frac{\partial C}{\partial w^{(i)}}) &\approx Var(x)Var(\frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(d)}})\prod_{j=0}^{i-1}n_j Var(W^{(j)})\prod_{j=i}^{d-1}n_{j+1}Var(W^{(j)}) \end{aligned}\]

The goal is to make

\[\begin{aligned} Var(z^{(i)}) &=Var(z^{(j)}) \\ Var(\frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(i)}}) &= Var(\frac{\partial C}{\partial s^{(j)}}) \end{aligned}\]

for all layers \(i\) and \(j\) (hence the variance is not exploding nor vanishing). Which the solution is

\[n_i Var(W^{(i)}) = n_{i+1} Var(W^{(i)}) = 1\]

There is a solution only if all layers are of the same size \(n_i=n\) but the paper propose a compromised solution:


Uniform distribution \(U[a,b]\) has variance \(\frac{1}{12}(b-a)^2\). Therefore with the uniform initializer \(U[-1/\sqrt{n},1/\sqrt{n}]\), the variance is \(1/(3n)\). Hence \(nVar(W)=\frac13\). This will cause the variance of \(z^{(i)}\) diminish toward the output and gradient \(\partial C/\partial s^{(i)}\) explode toward output. The paper’s proposal is to initialize with

\[W^{(i)} \sim U[-\frac{\sqrt{6}}{\sqrt{n_i+n_{i+1}}}, \frac{\sqrt{6}}{\sqrt{n_i+n_{i+1}}}]\]

which the variance will be \(2/(n_i+n_{i+1})\).

Bibliographic data

   title = "Understanding the difficulty of training deep feedforward neural networks",
   author = "Xavier Glorot and Yoshua Bengio",
   booktitle = "Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Statistics",
   year = "2010",
   pages = "249--256",