Artificial neural network


Artificial neural network

An artificial neural network (ANN), usually called “neural network” (NN), is a mathematical model or computational model that tries to simulate the structure and/or functional aspects of biological neural networks. It consists of an interconnected group of artificial neurons and processes information using a connectionist approach to computation. In most cases an ANN is an adaptive system that changes its structure based on external or internal information that flows through the network during the learning phase. Neural networks are non-linear statistical data modeling tools. They can be used to model complex relationships between inputs and outputs or to find patterns in data.


There is no precise agreed-upon definition among researchers as to what a neural network is, but most would agree that it involves a network of simple processing elements (neurons), which can exhibit complex global behavior, determined by the connections between the processing elements and element parameters. The original inspiration for the technique came from examination of the central nervous system and the neurons (and their axons, dendrites and synapses) which constitute one of its most significant information processing elements (see Neuroscience). In a neural network model, simple nodes (called variously “neurons”, “neurodes”, “PEs” (“processing elements”) or “units”) are connected together to form a network of nodes — hence the term “neural network.” While a neural network does not have to be adaptive per se, its practical use comes with algorithms designed to alter the strength (weights) of the connections in the network to produce a desired signal flow.

These networks are also similar to the biological neural networks in the sense that functions are performed collectively and in parallel by the units, rather than there being a clear delineation of subtasks to which various units are assigned (see also connectionism). Currently, the term Artificial Neural Network (ANN) tends to refer mostly to neural network models employed in statistics, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Neural network models designed with emulation of the central nervous system (CNS) in mind are a subject of theoretical neuroscience (computational neuroscience).

In modern software implementations of artificial neural networks the approach inspired by biology has for the most part been abandoned for a more practical approach based on statistics and signal processing. In some of these systems, neural networks or parts of neural networks (such as artificial neurons) are used as components in larger systems that combine both adaptive and non-adaptive elements. While the more general approach of such adaptive systems is more suitable for real-world problem solving, it has far less to do with the traditional artificial intelligence connectionist models. What they do have in common, however, is the principle of non-linear, distributed, parallel and local processing and adaptation.


Neural network models in artificial intelligence are usually referred to as artificial neural networks (ANNs); these are essentially simple mathematical models defining a function . Each type of ANN model corresponds to a class of such functions.

Employing artificial neural networks

Perhaps the greatest advantage of ANNs is their ability to be used as an arbitrary function approximation mechanism which ‘learns’ from observed data. However, using them is not so straightforward and a relatively good understanding of the underlying theory is essential.

  • Choice of model: This will depend on the data representation and the application. Overly complex models tend to lead to problems with learning.
  • Learning algorithm: There are numerous tradeoffs between learning algorithms. Almost any algorithm will work well with the correct hyperparameters for training on a particular fixed dataset. However selecting and tuning an algorithm for training on unseen data requires a significant amount of experimentation.
  • Robustness: If the model, cost function and learning algorithm are selected appropriately the resulting ANN can be extremely robust.

With the correct implementation ANNs can be used naturally in online learning and large dataset applications. Their simple implementation and the existence of mostly local dependencies exhibited in the structure allows for fast, parallel implementations in hardware.


The utility of artificial neural network models lies in the fact that they can be used to infer a function from observations. This is particularly useful in applications where the complexity of the data or task makes the design of such a function by hand impractical.

Real life applications

The tasks to which artificial neural networks are applied tend to fall within the following broad categories:

  • Function approximation, or regression analysis, including time series prediction, fitness approximation and modeling.
  • Classification, including pattern and sequence recognition, novelty detection and sequential decision making.
  • Data processing, including filtering, clustering, blind source separation and compression.
  • Robotics, including directing manipulators, Computer numerical control.

Application areas include system identification and control (vehicle control, process control), quantum chemistry, game-playing and decision making (backgammon, chess, racing), pattern recognition (radar systems, face identification, object recognition and more), sequence recognition (gesture, speech, handwritten text recognition), medical diagnosis, financial applications (automated trading systems), data mining (or knowledge discovery in databases, “KDD”), visualization and e-mail spam filtering.

Neural network software

Neural network software is used to simulate, research, develop and apply artificial neural networks, biological neural networks and in some cases a wider array of adaptive systems. See also logistic regression.

Types of neural networks

Feedforward neural network

The feedforward neural network was the first and arguably simplest type of artificial neural network devised. In this network, the information moves in only one direction, forward, from the input nodes, through the hidden nodes (if any) and to the output nodes. There are no cycles or loops in the network.

Radial basis function (RBF) network

Radial Basis Functions are powerful techniques for interpolation in multidimensional space. A RBF is a function which has built into a distance criterion with respect to a center. Radial basis functions have been applied in the area of neural networks where they may be used as a replacement for the sigmoidal hidden layer transfer characteristic in Multi-Layer Perceptrons. RBF networks have two layers of processing: In the first, input is mapped onto each RBF in the ‘hidden’ layer. The RBF chosen is usually a Gaussian. In regression problems the output layer is then a linear combination of hidden layer values representing mean predicted output. The interpretation of this output layer value is the same as a regression model in statistics. In classification problems the output layer is typically a sigmoid function of a linear combination of hidden layer values, representing a posterior probability. Performance in both cases is often improved by shrinkage techniques, known as ridge regression in classical statistics and known to correspond to a prior belief in small parameter values (and therefore smooth output functions) in a Bayesian framework.

RBF networks have the advantage of not suffering from local minima in the same way as Multi-Layer Perceptrons. This is because the only parameters that are adjusted in the learning process are the linear mapping from hidden layer to output layer. Linearity ensures that the error surface is quadratic and therefore has a single easily found minimum. In regression problems this can be found in one matrix operation. In classification problems the fixed non-linearity introduced by the sigmoid output function is most efficiently dealt with using iteratively re-weighted least squares.

RBF networks have the disadvantage of requiring good coverage of the input space by radial basis functions. RBF centres are determined with reference to the distribution of the input data, but without reference to the prediction task. As a result, representational resources may be wasted on areas of the input space that are irrelevant to the learning task. A common solution is to associate each data point with its own centre, although this can make the linear system to be solved in the final layer rather large, and requires shrinkage techniques to avoid overfitting.

Associating each input datum with an RBF leads naturally to kernel methods such as Support Vector Machines and Gaussian Processes (the RBF is the kernel function). All three approaches use a non-linear kernel function to project the input data into a space where the learning problem can be solved using a linear model. Like Gaussian Processes, and unlike SVMs, RBF networks are typically trained in a Maximum Likelihood framework by maximizing the probability (minimizing the error) of the data under the model. SVMs take a different approach to avoiding overfitting by maximizing instead a margin. RBF networks are outperformed in most classification applications by SVMs. In regression applications they can be competitive when the dimensionality of the input space is relatively small.

Kohonen self-organizing network

The self-organizing map (SOM) invented by Teuvo Kohonen performs a form of unsupervised learning. A set of artificial neurons learn to map points in an input space to coordinates in an output space. The input space can have different dimensions and topology from the output space, and the SOM will attempt to preserve these.

Recurrent network

Contrary to feedforward networks, recurrent neural networks (RNs) are models with bi-directional data flow. While a feedforward network propagates data linearly from input to output, RNs also propagate data from later processing stages to earlier stages.

Simple recurrent network

A simple recurrent network (SRN) is a variation on the Multi-Layer Perceptron, sometimes called an “Elman network” due to its invention by Jeff Elman. A three-layer network is used, with the addition of a set of “context units” in the input layer. There are connections from the middle (hidden) layer to these context units fixed with a weight of one. At each time step, the input is propagated in a standard feed-forward fashion, and then a learning rule (usually back-propagation) is applied. The fixed back connections result in the context units always maintaining a copy of the previous values of the hidden units (since they propagate over the connections before the learning rule is applied). Thus the network can maintain a sort of state, allowing it to perform such tasks as sequence-prediction that are beyond the power of a standard Multi-Layer Perceptron.

In a fully recurrent network, every neuron receives inputs from every other neuron in the network. These networks are not arranged in layers. Usually only a subset of the neurons receive external inputs in addition to the inputs from all the other neurons, and another disjunct subset of neurons report their output externally as well as sending it to all the neurons. These distinctive inputs and outputs perform the function of the input and output layers of a feed-forward or simple recurrent network, and also join all the other neurons in the recurrent processing.

Hopfield network

The Hopfield network is a recurrent neural network in which all connections are symmetric. Invented by John Hopfield in 1982, this network guarantees that its dynamics will converge. If the connections are trained using Hebbian learning then the Hopfield network can perform as robust content-addressable (or associative) memory, resistant to connection alteration.

Echo state network

The echo state network (ESN) is a recurrent neural network with a sparsely connected random hidden layer. The weights of output neurons are the only part of the network that can change and be learned. ESN are good to (re)produce temporal patterns.

Long short term memory network

The Long short term memory is an artificial neural net structure that unlike traditional RNNs doesn’t have the problem of vanishing gradients. It can therefore use long delays and can handle signals that have a mix of low and high frequency components.

Stochastic neural networks

A stochastic neural network differs from a typical neural network because it introduces random variations into the network. In a probabilistic view of neural networks, such random variations can be viewed as a form of statistical sampling, such as Monte Carlo sampling.

Boltzmann machine

The Boltzmann machine can be thought of as a noisy Hopfield network. Invented by Geoff Hinton and Terry Sejnowski in 1985, the Boltzmann machine is important because it is one of the first neural networks to demonstrate learning of latent variables (hidden units). Boltzmann machine learning was at first slow to simulate, but the contrastive divergence algorithm of Geoff Hinton (circa 2000) allows models such as Boltzmann machines and products of experts to be trained much faster.

Modular neural networks

Biological studies have shown that the human brain functions not as a single massive network, but as a collection of small networks. This realization gave birth to the concept of modular neural networks, in which several small networks cooperate or compete to solve problems.

Committee of machines

A committee of machines (CoM) is a collection of different neural networks that together “vote” on a given example. This generally gives a much better result compared to other neural network models. Because neural networks suffer from local minima, starting with the same architecture and training but using different initial random weights often gives vastly different networks. A CoM tends to stabilize the result.

The CoM is similar to the general machine learning bagging method, except that the necessary variety of machines in the committee is obtained by training from different random starting weights rather than training on different randomly selected subsets of the training data.

Associative neural network (ASNN)

The ASNN is an extension of the committee of machines that goes beyond a simple/weighted average of different models. ASNN represents a combination of an ensemble of feed-forward neural networks and the k-nearest neighbor technique (kNN). It uses the correlation between ensemble responses as a measure of distance amid the analyzed cases for the kNN. This corrects the bias of the neural network ensemble. An associative neural network has a memory that can coincide with the training set. If new data become available, the network instantly improves its predictive ability and provides data approximation (self-learn the data) without a need to retrain the ensemble. Another important feature of ASNN is the possibility to interpret neural network results by analysis of correlations between data cases in the space of models. The method is demonstrated at, where you can either use it online or download it.

Other types of networks

These special networks do not fit in any of the previous categories.

Holographic associative memory

Holographic associative memory represents a family of analog, correlation-based, associative, stimulus-response memories, where information is mapped onto the phase orientation of complex numbers operating.

Instantaneously trained networks

Instantaneously trained neural networks (ITNNs) were inspired by the phenomenon of short-term learning that seems to occur instantaneously. In these networks the weights of the hidden and the output layers are mapped directly from the training vector data. Ordinarily, they work on binary data, but versions for continuous data that require small additional processing are also available.

Spiking neural networks

Spiking neural networks (SNNs) are models which explicitly take into account the timing of inputs. The network input and output are usually represented as series of spikes (delta function or more complex shapes). SNNs have an advantage of being able to process information in the time domain (signals that vary over time). They are often implemented as recurrent networks. SNNs are also a form of pulse computer.

Spiking neural networks with axonal conduction delays exhibit polychronization, and hence could have a very large memory capacity.

Networks of spiking neurons — and the temporal correlations of neural assemblies in such networks — have been used to model figure/ground separation and region linking in the visual system (see, for example, Reitboeck et Haken and Stadler: Synergetics of the Brain. Berlin, 1989).

In June 2005 IBM announced construction of a Blue Gene supercomputer dedicated to the simulation of a large recurrent spiking neural network.

Gerstner and Kistler have a freely available online textbook on Spiking Neuron Models.

Dynamic neural networks

Dynamic neural networks not only deal with nonlinear multivariate behaviour, but also include (learning of) time-dependent behaviour such as various transient phenomena and delay effects.

Cascading neural networks

Cascade-Correlation is an architecture and supervised learning algorithm developed by Scott Fahlman and Christian Lebiere. Instead of just adjusting the weights in a network of fixed topology, Cascade-Correlation begins with a minimal network, then automatically trains and adds new hidden units one by one, creating a multi-layer structure. Once a new hidden unit has been added to the network, its input-side weights are frozen. This unit then becomes a permanent feature-detector in the network, available for producing outputs or for creating other, more complex feature detectors. The Cascade-Correlation architecture has several advantages over existing algorithms: it learns very quickly, the network determines its own size and topology, it retains the structures it has built even if the training set changes, and it requires no back-propagation of error signals through the connections of the network. See: Cascade correlation algorithm.

Neuro-fuzzy networks

A neuro-fuzzy network is a fuzzy inference system in the body of an artificial neural network. Depending on the FIS type, there are several layers that simulate the processes involved in a fuzzy inference like fuzzification, inference, aggregation and defuzzification. Embedding an FIS in a general structure of an ANN has the benefit of using available ANN training methods to find the parameters of a fuzzy system.

Compositional pattern-producing networks

Compositional pattern-producing networks (CPPNs) are a variation of ANNs which differ in their set of activation functions and how they are applied. While typical ANNs often contain only sigmoid functions (and sometimes Gaussian functions), CPPNs can include both types of functions and many others. Furthermore, unlike typical ANNs, CPPNs are applied across the entire space of possible inputs so that they can represent a complete image. Since they are compositions of functions, CPPNs in effect encode images at infinite resolution and can be sampled for a particular display at whatever resolution is optimal.

One-shot associative memory

This type of network can add new patterns without the need for re-training. It is done by creating a specific memory structure, which assigns each new pattern to an orthogonal plane using adjacently connected hierarchical arrays. The network offers real-time pattern recognition and high scalability, it however requires parallel processing and is thus best suited for platforms such as Wireless sensor networks (WSN), Grid computing, and GPGPUs.

Theoretical properties

Computational power

The multi-layer perceptron (MLP) is a universal function approximator, as proven by the Cybenko theorem. However, the proof is not constructive regarding the number of neurons required or the settings of the weights.

Work by Hava Siegelmann and Eduardo D. Sontag has provided a proof that a specific recurrent architecture with rational valued weights (as opposed to the commonly used floating point approximations) has the full power of a Universal Turing Machine using a finite number of neurons and standard linear connections. They have further shown that the use of irrational values for weights results in a machine with super-Turing power.


Artificial neural network models have a property called ‘capacity’, which roughly corresponds to their ability to model any given function. It is related to the amount of information that can be stored in the network and to the notion of complexity.


Nothing can be said in general about convergence since it depends on a number of factors. Firstly, there may exist many local minima. This depends on the cost function and the model. Secondly, the optimization method used might not be guaranteed to converge when far away from a local minimum. Thirdly, for a very large amount of data or parameters, some methods become impractical. In general, it has been found that theoretical guarantees regarding convergence are an unreliable guide to practical application.

Generalisation and statistics

In applications where the goal is to create a system that generalises well in unseen examples, the problem of overtraining has emerged. This arises in overcomplex or overspecified systems when the capacity of the network significantly exceeds the needed free parameters. There are two schools of thought for avoiding this problem: The first is to use cross-validation and similar techniques to check for the presence of overtraining and optimally select hyperparameters such as to minimize the generalisation error. The second is to use some form of regularisation. This is a concept that emerges naturally in a probabilistic (Bayesian) framework, where the regularisation can be performed by selecting a larger prior probability over simpler models; but also in statistical learning theory, where the goal is to minimize over two quantities: the ’empirical risk’ and the ‘structural risk’, which roughly correspond to the error over the training set and the predicted error in unseen data due to overfitting.

Confidence analysis of a neural network

Supervised neural networks that use an MSE cost function can use formal statistical methods to determine the confidence of the trained model. The MSE on a validation set can be used as an estimate for variance. This value can then be used to calculate the confidence interval of the output of the network, assuming a normal distribution. A confidence analysis made this way is statistically valid as long as the output probability distribution stays the same and the network is not modified.

By assigning a softmax activation function on the output layer of the neural network (or a softmax component in a component-based neural network) for categorical target variables, the outputs can be interpreted as posterior probabilities. This is very useful in classification as it gives a certainty measure on classifications.

The softmax activation function: y_i=frac{e^{x_i}}{sum_{j=1}^c e^{x_j}}

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