Golden Recursion Inc. logoGolden Recursion Inc. logo
Advanced Search
Convolutional neural network

Convolutional neural network

A type of neural network which uses overlapping input neurons modeled on the behavior of human visual cortex. Convolutional neural networks are best known for their use in image analysis, specifically object recognition.

A convolutional neural network (CNN, ConvNet) is a special kind of neural network that has been applied to a variety of pattern recognition problems, such as computer vision, speech recognition and others.

In deep learning, a convolutional neural network (CNN, or ConvNet) is a class of artificial neural network, most commonly applied to analyze visual imagery. They are also known as shift invariant or space invariant artificial neural networks (SIANN), based on the shared-weight architecture of the convolution kernels or filters that slide along input features and provide translation equivariant responses known as feature maps. Counter-intuitively, most convolutional neural networks are only equivariant, as opposed to invariant, to translation. They have applications in image and video recognition, recommender systems, image classification, image segmentation, medical image analysis, natural language processing,[6] brain-computer interfaces, and financial time series.

CNNs are regularized versions of multilayer perceptrons. Multilayer perceptrons usually mean fully connected networks, that is, each neuron in one layer is connected to all neurons in the next layer. The "full connectivity" of these networks make them prone to overfitting data. Typical ways of regularization, or preventing overfitting, include: penalizing parameters during training (such as weight decay) or trimming connectivity (skipped connections, dropout, etc.) CNNs take a different approach towards regularization: they take advantage of the hierarchical pattern in data and assemble patterns of increasing complexity using smaller and simpler patterns embossed in their filters. Therefore, on a scale of connectivity and complexity, CNNs are on the lower extreme.

Convolutional networks were inspired by biological processes in that the connectivity pattern between neurons resembles the organization of the animal visual cortex. Individual cortical neurons respond to stimuli only in a restricted region of the visual field known as the receptive field. The receptive fields of different neurons partially overlap such that they cover the entire visual field.

CNNs use relatively little pre-processing compared to other image classification algorithms. This means that the network learns to optimize the filters (or kernels) through automated learning, whereas in traditional algorithms these filters are hand-engineered. This independence from prior knowledge and human intervention in feature extraction is a major advantage.

The architecture of a CNN is designed to take advantage of the 2D structure of an input image or other 2D input such as a speech signal. Unlike a regular neural network, CNN is comprised of one or more convolutional layers and then followed by one or more fully connected layers as in a standard multilayer neural network.

A convolutional neural network can perform the following operations:

  • Convolution
  • Rectification (ReLU)
  • Pooling or Sub Sampling - reduction of the dimensionality of each feature and retaining the most important information
  • Classification (Fully Connected Layer) to yield final class output


A convolutional neural network consists of an input layer, hidden layers and an output layer. In any feed-forward neural network, any middle layers are called hidden because their inputs and outputs are masked by the activation function and final convolution. In a convolutional neural network, the hidden layers include layers that perform convolutions. Typically this includes a layer that performs a dot product of the convolution kernel with the layer's input matrix. This product is usually the Frobenius inner product, and its activation function is commonly ReLU. As the convolution kernel slides along the input matrix for the layer, the convolution operation generates a feature map, which in turn contributes to the input of the next layer. This is followed by other layers such as pooling layers, fully connected layers, and normalization layers.

Convolutional layers

In a CNN, the input is a tensor with a shape: (number of inputs) x (input height) x (input width) x (input channels). After passing through a convolutional layer, the image becomes abstracted to a feature map, also called an activation map, with shape: (number of inputs) x (feature map height) x (feature map width) x (feature map channels).

Convolutional layers convolve the input and pass its result to the next layer. This is similar to the response of a neuron in the visual cortex to a specific stimulus. Each convolutional neuron processes data only for its receptive field. Although fully connected feedforward neural networks can be used to learn features and classify data, this architecture is generally impractical for larger inputs such as high resolution images. It would require a very high number of neurons, even in a shallow architecture, due to the large input size of images, where each pixel is a relevant input feature. For instance, a fully connected layer for a (small) image of size 100 x 100 has 10,000 weights for each neuron in the second layer. Instead, convolution reduces the number of free parameters, allowing the network to be deeper. For example, regardless of image size, using a 5 x 5 tiling region, each with the same shared weights, requires only 25 learnable parameters. Using regularized weights over fewer parameters avoids the vanishing gradients and exploding gradients problems seen during backpropagation in traditional neural networks. Furthermore, convolutional neural networks are ideal for data with a grid-like topology (such as images) as spatial relations between separate features are taken into account during convolution and/or pooling.

Pooling layers

Convolutional networks may include local and/or global pooling layers along with traditional convolutional layers. Pooling layers reduce the dimensions of data by combining the outputs of neuron clusters at one layer into a single neuron in the next layer. Local pooling combines small clusters, tiling sizes such as 2 x 2 are commonly used. Global pooling acts on all the neurons of the feature map. There are two common types of pooling in popular use: max and average. Max pooling uses the maximum value of each local cluster of neurons in the feature map, while average pooling takes the average value.

Fully connected layers

Fully connected layers connect every neuron in one layer to every neuron in another layer. It is the same as a traditional multi-layer perceptron neural network (MLP). The flattened matrix goes through a fully connected layer to classify the images.

Receptive field

In neural networks, each neuron receives input from some number of locations in the previous layer. In a convolutional layer, each neuron receives input from only a restricted area of the previous layer called the neuron's receptive field. Typically the area is a square (e.g. 5 by 5 neurons). Whereas, in a fully connected layer, the receptive field is the entire previous layer. Thus, in each convolutional layer, each neuron takes input from a larger area in the input than previous layers. This is due to applying the convolution over and over, which takes into account the value of a pixel, as well as its surrounding pixels. When using dilated layers, the number of pixels in the receptive field remains constant, but the field is more sparsely populated as its dimensions grow when combining the effect of several layers.


Each neuron in a neural network computes an output value by applying a specific function to the input values received from the receptive field in the previous layer. The function that is applied to the input values is determined by a vector of weights and a bias (typically real numbers). Learning consists of iteratively adjusting these biases and weights.

The vector of weights and the bias are called filters and represent particular features of the input (e.g., a particular shape). A distinguishing feature of CNNs is that many neurons can share the same filter. This reduces the memory footprint because a single bias and a single vector of weights are used across all receptive fields that share that filter, as opposed to each receptive field having its own bias and vector weighting.


CNN are often compared to the way the brain achieves vision processing in living organisms

Receptive fields in the visual cortex

Work by Hubel and Wiesel in the 1950s and 1960s showed that cat visual cortices contain neurons that individually respond to small regions of the visual field. Provided the eyes are not moving, the region of visual space within which visual stimuli affect the firing of a single neuron is known as its receptive field. Neighboring cells have similar and overlapping receptive fields.[citation needed] Receptive field size and location varies systematically across the cortex to form a complete map of visual space. The cortex in each hemisphere represents the contralateral visual field.

Their 1968 paper identified two basic visual cell types in the brain:

  • simple cells, whose output is maximized by straight edges having particular orientations within their receptive field
  • complex cells, which have larger receptive fields, whose output is insensitive to the exact position of the edges in the field.

Hubel and Wiesel also proposed a cascading model of these two types of cells for use in pattern recognition tasks.

Neocognitron, origin of the CNN architecture

The "neocognitron" was introduced by Kunihiko Fukushima in 1980. It was inspired by the above-mentioned work of Hubel and Wiesel. The neocognitron introduced the two basic types of layers in CNNs: convolutional layers, and downsampling layers. A convolutional layer contains units whose receptive fields cover a patch of the previous layer. The weight vector (the set of adaptive parameters) of such a unit is often called a filter. Units can share filters. Downsampling layers contain units whose receptive fields cover patches of previous convolutional layers. Such a unit typically computes the average of the activations of the units in its patch. This downsampling helps to correctly classify objects in visual scenes even when the objects are shifted.

In a variant of the neocognitron called the cresceptron, instead of using Fukushima's spatial averaging, J. Weng et al. introduced a method called max-pooling where a downsampling unit computes the maximum of the activations of the units in its patch. Max-pooling is often used in modern CNNs.

Several supervised and unsupervised learning algorithms have been proposed over the decades to train the weights of a neocognitron. Today, however, the CNN architecture is usually trained through backpropagation.

The neocognitron is the first CNN which requires units located at multiple network positions to have shared weights.

Convolutional neural networks were presented at the Neural Information Processing Workshop in 1987, automatically analyzing time-varying signals by replacing learned multiplication with convolution in time, and demonstrated for speech recognition.

Time delay neural networks

The time delay neural network (TDNN) was introduced in 1987 by Alex Waibel et al. and was one of the first convolutional networks, as it achieved shift invariance. It did so by utilizing weight sharing in combination with Backpropagation training. Thus, while also using a pyramidal structure as in the neocognitron, it performed a global optimization of the weights instead of a local one.

TDNNs are convolutional networks that share weights along the temporal dimension. They allow speech signals to be processed time-invariantly. In 1990 Hampshire and Waibel introduced a variant which performs a two dimensional convolution. Since these TDNNs operated on spectrograms, the resulting phoneme recognition system was invariant to both shifts in time and in frequency. This inspired translation invariance in image processing with CNNs. The tiling of neuron outputs can cover timed stages.

TDNNs now achieve the best performance in far distance speech recognition.

Max pooling

In 1990 Yamaguchi et al. introduced the concept of max pooling, which is a fixed filtering operation that calculates and propagates the maximum value of a given region. They did so by combining TDNNs with max pooling in order to realize a speaker independent isolated word recognition system. In their system they used several TDNNs per word, one for each syllable. The results of each TDNN over the input signal were combined using max pooling and the outputs of the pooling layers were then passed on to networks performing the actual word classification.

Image recognition with CNNs trained by gradient descent

A system to recognize hand-written ZIP Code numbers involved convolutions in which the kernel coefficients had been laboriously hand designed.

Yann LeCun et al. (1989) used back-propagation to learn the convolution kernel coefficients directly from images of hand-written numbers. Learning was thus fully automatic, performed better than manual coefficient design, and was suited to a broader range of image recognition problems and image types.

This approach became a foundation of modern computer vision.


LeNet-5, a pioneering 7-level convolutional network by LeCun et al. in 1998, that classifies digits, was applied by several banks to recognize hand-written numbers on checks (British English: cheques) digitized in 32x32 pixel images. The ability to process higher resolution images requires larger and more layers of convolutional neural networks, so this technique is constrained by the availability of computing resources.

Shift-invariant neural network

Similarly, a shift invariant neural network was proposed by W. Zhang et al. for image character recognition in 1988. The architecture and training algorithm were modified in 1991 and applied for medical image processing and automatic detection of breast cancer in mammograms.

A different convolution-based design was proposed in 1988[42] for application to decomposition of one-dimensional electromyography convolved signals via de-convolution. This design was modified in 1989 to other de-convolution-based designs.

Neural abstraction pyramid

The feed-forward architecture of convolutional neural networks was extended in the neural abstraction pyramid by lateral and feedback connections. The resulting recurrent convolutional network allows for the flexible incorporation of contextual information to iteratively resolve local ambiguities. In contrast to previous models, image-like outputs at the highest resolution were generated, e.g., for semantic segmentation, image reconstruction, and object localization tasks.

Neural abstraction pyramid
GPU implementations

Although CNNs were invented in the 1980s, their breakthrough in the 2000s required fast implementations on graphics processing units (GPUs).

In 2004, it was shown by K. S. Oh and K. Jung that standard neural networks can be greatly accelerated on GPUs. Their implementation was 20 times faster than an equivalent implementation on CPU. In 2005, another paper also emphasised the value of GPGPU for machine learning.

The first GPU-implementation of a CNN was described in 2006 by K. Chellapilla et al. Their implementation was 4 times faster than an equivalent implementation on CPU. Subsequent work also used GPUs, initially for other types of neural networks (different from CNNs), especially unsupervised neural networks.

In 2010, Dan Ciresan et al. at IDSIA showed that even deep standard neural networks with many layers can be quickly trained on GPU by supervised learning through the old method known as backpropagation. Their network outperformed previous machine learning methods on the MNIST handwritten digits benchmark. In 2011, they extended this GPU approach to CNNs, achieving an acceleration factor of 60, with impressive results. In 2011, they used such CNNs on GPU to win an image recognition contest where they achieved superhuman performance for the first time. Between May 15, 2011 and September 30, 2012, their CNNs won no less than four image competitions.[55][28] In 2012, they also significantly improved on the best performance in the literature for multiple image databases, including the MNIST database, the NORB database, the HWDB1.0 dataset (Chinese characters) and the CIFAR10 dataset (dataset of 60000 32x32 labeled RGB images).

Subsequently, a similar GPU-based CNN by Alex Krizhevsky et al. won the ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge 2012. A very deep CNN with over 100 layers by Microsoft won the ImageNet 2015 contest.

Intel Xeon Phi implementations

Compared to the training of CNNs using GPUs, not much attention was given to the Intel Xeon Phi coprocessor. A notable development is a parallelization method for training convolutional neural networks on the Intel Xeon Phi, named Controlled Hogwild with Arbitrary Order of Synchronization (CHAOS). CHAOS exploits both the thread- and SIMD-level parallelism that is available on the Intel Xeon Phi.

Distinguishing features

In the past, traditional multilayer perceptron (MLP) models were used for image recognition. However, the full connectivity between nodes caused the curse of dimensionality, and was computationally intractable with higher resolution images. A 1000×1000-pixel image with RGB color channels has 3 million weights, which is too high to feasibly process efficiently at scale with full connectivity.

For example, in CIFAR-10, images are only of size 32×32×3 (32 wide, 32 high, 3 color channels), so a single fully connected neuron in the first hidden layer of a regular neural network would have 32*32*3 = 3,072 weights. A 200×200 image, however, would lead to neurons that have 200*200*3 = 120,000 weights.

Building blocks

A CNN architecture is formed by a stack of distinct layers that transform the input volume into an output volume (e.g. holding the class scores) through a differentiable function. A few distinct types of layers are commonly used. These are further discussed below.

Typical CNN architecture
Convolutional layer

The convolutional layer is the core building block of a CNN. The layer's parameters consist of a set of learnable filters (or kernels), which have a small receptive field, but extend through the full depth of the input volume. During the forward pass, each filter is convolved across the width and height of the input volume, computing the dot product between the filter entries and the input, producing a 2-dimensional activation map of that filter. As a result, the network learns filters that activate when it detects some specific type of feature at some spatial position in the input.

Neurons of a convolutional layer (blue), connected to their receptive field (red)

Stacking the activation maps for all filters along the depth dimension forms the full output volume of the convolution layer. Every entry in the output volume can thus also be interpreted as an output of a neuron that looks at a small region in the input and shares parameters with neurons in the same activation map.

Local connectivity

When dealing with high-dimensional inputs such as images, it is impractical to connect neurons to all neurons in the previous volume because such a network architecture does not take the spatial structure of the data into account. Convolutional networks exploit spatially local correlation by enforcing a sparse local connectivity pattern between neurons of adjacent layers: each neuron is connected to only a small region of the input volume.

The extent of this connectivity is a hyperparameter called the receptive field of the neuron. The connections are local in space (along width and height), but always extend along the entire depth of the input volume. Such an architecture ensures that the learnt filters produce the strongest response to a spatially local input pattern.

Spatial arrangement

Three hyperparameters control the size of the output volume of the convolutional layer: the depth, stride and padding size.

  • The depth of the output volume controls the number of neurons in a layer that connect to the same region of the input volume. These neurons learn to activate for different features in the input. For example, if the first convolutional layer takes the raw image as input, then different neurons along the depth dimension may activate in the presence of various oriented edges, or blobs of color.
  • Stride controls how depth columns around the width and height are allocated. If the stride is 1, then we move the filters one pixel at a time. This leads to heavily overlapping receptive fields between the columns, and to large output volumes. For any integer a stride S means that the filter is translated S units at a time per output. In practice, is rare. A greater stride means smaller overlap of receptive fields and smaller spatial dimensions of the output volume.
  • Sometimes, it is convenient to pad the input with zeros (or other values, such as the average of the region) on the border of the input volume. The size of this padding is a third hyperparameter. Padding provides control of the output volume's spatial size. In particular, sometimes it is desirable to exactly preserve the spatial size of the input volume, this is commonly referred to as "same" padding.

The spatial size of the output volume is a function of the input volume size the kernel field size of the convolutional layer neurons, the stride and the amount of zero padding on the border. The number of neurons that "fit" in a given volume is then:

If this number is not an integer, then the strides are incorrect and the neurons cannot be tiled to fit across the input volume in a symmetric way. In general, setting zero padding to be when the stride is ensures that the input volume and output volume will have the same size spatially. However, it is not always completely necessary to use all of the neurons of the previous layer. For example, a neural network designer may decide to use just a portion of padding.

Parameter sharing

A parameter sharing scheme is used in convolutional layers to control the number of free parameters. It relies on the assumption that if a patch feature is useful to compute at some spatial position, then it should also be useful to compute at other positions. Denoting a single 2-dimensional slice of depth as a depth slice, the neurons in each depth slice are constrained to use the same weights and bias.

Since all neurons in a single depth slice share the same parameters, the forward pass in each depth slice of the convolutional layer can be computed as a convolution of the neuron's weights with the input volume. Therefore, it is common to refer to the sets of weights as a filter (or a kernel), which is convolved with the input. The result of this convolution is an activation map, and the set of activation maps for each different filter are stacked together along the depth dimension to produce the output volume. Parameter sharing contributes to the translation invariance of the CNN architecture.

Sometimes, the parameter sharing assumption may not make sense. This is especially the case when the input images to a CNN have some specific centered structure; for which we expect completely different features to be learned on different spatial locations. One practical example is when the inputs are faces that have been centered in the image: we might expect different eye-specific or hair-specific features to be learned in different parts of the image. In that case it is common to relax the parameter sharing scheme, and instead simply call the layer a "locally connected layer".

Pooling layer

Another important concept of CNNs is pooling, which is a form of non-linear down-sampling. There are several non-linear functions to implement pooling, where max pooling is the most common. It partitions the input image into a set of rectangles and, for each such sub-region, outputs the maximum.

Max pooling with a 2x2 filter and stride = 2

Intuitively, the exact location of a feature is less important than its rough location relative to other features. This is the idea behind the use of pooling in convolutional neural networks. The pooling layer serves to progressively reduce the spatial size of the representation, to reduce the number of parameters, memory footprint and amount of computation in the network, and hence to also control overfitting. This is known as down-sampling. It is common to periodically insert a pooling layer between successive convolutional layers (each one typically followed by an activation function, such as a ReLU layer) in a CNN architecture.  While pooling layers contribute to local translation invariance, they do not provide global translation invariance in a CNN, unless a form of global pooling is used. The pooling layer commonly operates independently on every depth, or slice, of the input and resizes it spatially. A very common form of max pooling is a layer with filters of size 2×2, applied with a stride of 2, which subsamples every depth slice in the input by 2 along both width and height, discarding 75% of the activations:

In this case, every max operation is over 4 numbers. The depth dimension remains unchanged (this is true for other forms of pooling as well).

In addition to max pooling, pooling units can use other functions, such as average pooling or ℓ2-norm pooling. Average pooling was often used historically but has recently fallen out of favor compared to max pooling, which generally performs better in practice.

Due to the effects of fast spatial reduction of the size of the representation, there is a recent trend towards using smaller filters or discarding pooling layers altogether.

RoI pooling to size 2x2. In this example region proposal (an input parameter) has size 7x5.

"Region of Interest" pooling (also known as RoI pooling) is a variant of max pooling, in which output size is fixed and input rectangle is a parameter.

Pooling is an important component of convolutional neural networks for object detection based on the Fast R-CNN architecture.

RoI pooling to size 2x2. In this example region proposal (an input parameter) has size 7x5
ReLU layer

ReLU is the abbreviation of rectified linear unit, which applies the non-saturating activation function . It effectively removes negative values from an activation map by setting them to zero. It introduces nonlinearities to the decision function and in the overall network without affecting the receptive fields of the convolution layers.

Other functions can also be used to increase nonlinearity, for example the saturating hyperbolic tangent and the sigmoid function . ReLU is often preferred to other functions because it trains the neural network several times faster without a significant penalty to generalization accuracy.

Fully connected layer

After several convolutional and max pooling layers, the final classification is done via fully connected layers. Neurons in a fully connected layer have connections to all activations in the previous layer, as seen in regular (non-convolutional) artificial neural networks. Their activations can thus be computed as an affine transformation, with matrix multiplication followed by a bias offset (vector addition of a learned or fixed bias term)

Loss layer

The "loss layer", or "loss function", specifies how training penalizes the deviation between the predicted output of the network, and the true data labels (during supervised learning). Various loss functions can be used, depending on the specific task.

The Softmax loss function is used for predicting a single class of K mutually exclusive classes.[nb 3] Sigmoid cross-entropy loss is used for predicting K independent probability values in . Euclidean loss is used for regressing to real-valued labels .


Hyperparameters are various settings that are used to control the learning process. CNNs use more hyperparameters than a standard multilayer perceptron (MLP).

Kernel size

The kernel is the number of pixels processed together. It is typically expressed as the kernel's dimensions, e.g., 2x2, or 3x3.


Padding is the addition of (typically) 0-valued pixels on the borders of an image. This is done so that the border pixels are not undervalued (lost) from the output because they would ordinarily participate in only a single receptive field instance. The padding applied is typically one less than the corresponding kernel dimension. For example, a convolutional layer using 3x3 kernels would receive a 2-pixel pad on all sides of the image.


The stride is the number of pixels that the analysis window moves on each iteration. A stride of 2 means that each kernel is offset by 2 pixels from its predecessor.

Number of filters

Since feature map size decreases with depth, layers near the input layer tend to have fewer filters while higher layers can have more. To equalize computation at each layer, the product of feature values va with pixel position is kept roughly constant across layers. Preserving more information about the input would require keeping the total number of activations (number of feature maps times number of pixel positions) non-decreasing from one layer to the next.

The number of feature maps directly controls the capacity and depends on the number of available examples and task complexity.

Filter size

Common filter sizes found in the literature vary greatly, and are usually chosen based on the data set.

The challenge is to find the right level of granularity so as to create abstractions at the proper scale, given a particular data set, and without overfitting.

Pooling type and size

Max pooling is typically used, often with a 2x2 dimension. This implies that the input is drastically downsampled, reducing processing cost.

Large input volumes may warrant 4×4 pooling in the lower layers. Greater pooling reduces the dimension of the signal, and may result in unacceptable information loss. Often, non-overlapping pooling windows perform best.


Dilation involves ignoring pixels within a kernel. This reduces processing/memory potentially without significant signal loss. A dilation of 2 on a 3x3 kernel expands the kernel to 7x7, while still processing 9 (evenly spaced) pixels. Accordingly, dilation of 4 expands the kernel to 15x15.

Translation Equivariance and Aliasing

It is commonly assumed that CNNs are invariant to shifts of the input. Convolution or pooling layers within a CNN that do not have a stride greater than one are indeed equivariant to translations of the input. However, layers with a stride greater than one ignore the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem and might lead to aliasing of the input signal While, in principle, CNNs are capable of implementing anti-aliasing filters, it has been observed that this does not happens in practice and yield models that are not equivariant to translations. Furthermore, if a CNN makes use of fully connected layers, translation equivariance does not imply translation invariance, as the fully connected layers are not invariant to shifts of the input. One solution for complete translation invariance is avoiding any down-sampling throughout the network and applying global average pooling at the last layer. Additionally, several other partial solutions have been proposed, such as anti-aliasing before downsampling operations, spatial transformer networks, data augmentation, subsampling combined with pooling, and capsule neural networks


Further Resources


Best Practices for Convolutional Neural NetworksApplied to Visual Document Analysis

Patrice Y. Simard, Dave Steinkraus and John C. Platt

Academic paper

Convolutional Networks

Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, Aaron Courville

Book Chapter

Going Deeper with Convolutions

Christian Szegedy, Wei Liu, Yangqing Jia, Pierre Sermanet, Scott Reed, Dragomir Anguelov, Dumitru Erhan, Vincent Vanhoucke, Andrew Rabinovich

Academic Paper

Gradient-Based Learning Applied to Document Recognition

Yann LeCun, Léon Bottou, Yoshua Bengio, and Patrick Haffner

Academic paper

ImageNet Classification with Deep Convolutional Neural Networks

Alex Krizhevsky, Ilya Sutskever, Geoffrey E Hinton

Academic Paper


Golden logo
By using this site, you agree to our Terms & Conditions.