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Understanding Convolutional Neural Networks for NLP


Dive into the world of Convolution Neural Networks (CNN), learn how they work, how to apply them for NLP, and how to tune CNN hyperparameters for best performance.



So, how does any of this apply to NLP?

Instead of image pixels, the input to most NLP tasks are sentences or documents represented as a matrix. Each row of the matrix corresponds to one token, typically a word, but it could be a character. That is, each row is vector that represents a word. Typically, these vectors are word embeddings (low-dimensional representations) like word2vec or GloVe, but they could also be one-hot vectors that index the word into a vocabulary. For a 10 word sentence using a 100-dimensional embedding we would have a 10×100 matrix as our input. That’s our “image”.

In vision, our filters slide over local patches of an image, but in NLP we typically use filters that slide over full rows of the matrix (words). Thus, the “width” of our filters is usually the same as the width of the input matrix. The height, or region size, may vary, but sliding windows over 2-5 words at a time is typical. Putting all the above together, a Convolutional Neural Network for NLP may look like this (take a few minutes and try understand this picture and how the dimensions are computed. You can ignore the pooling for now, we’ll explain that later):

Illustration of a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) architecture for sentence classification. Here we depict three filter region sizes: 2, 3 and 4, each of which has 2 filters. Every filter performs convolution on the sentence matrix and generates (variable-length) feature maps. Then 1-max pooling is performed over each map, i.e., the largest number from each feature map is recorded. Thus a univariate feature vector is generated from all six maps, and these 6 features are concatenated to form a feature vector for the penultimate layer. The final softmax layer then receives this feature vector as input and uses it to classify the sentence; here we assume binary classification and hence depict two possible output states. Source: hang, Y., & Wallace, B. (2015). A Sensitivity Analysis of (and Practitioners’ Guide to) Convolutional Neural Networks for Sentence Classification
Fig.2 Illustration of a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) architecture for sentence classification. Here we depict three filter region sizes: 2, 3 and 4, each of which has 2 filters. Every filter performs convolution on the sentence matrix and generates (variable-length) feature maps. Then 1-max pooling is performed over each map, i.e., the largest number from each feature map is recorded. Thus a univariate feature vector is generated from all six maps, and these 6 features are concatenated to form a feature vector for the penultimate layer. The final softmax layer then receives this feature vector as input and uses it to classify the sentence; here we assume binary classification and hence depict two possible output states. Source: Zhang, Y., & Wallace, B. (2015). A Sensitivity Analysis of (and Practitioners’ Guide to) Convolutional Neural Networks for Sentence Classification.

What about the nice intuitions we had for Computer Vision? Location Invariance and local Compositionality made intuitive sense for images, but not so much for NLP. You probably do care a lot where in the sentence a word appears. Pixels close to each other are likely to be semantically related (part of the same object), but the same isn’t always true for words. In many languages, parts of phrases could be separated by several other words. The compositional aspect isn’t obvious either. Clearly, words compose in some ways, like an adjective modifying a noun, but how exactly this works what higher level representations actually “mean” isn’t as obvious as in the Computer Vision case.

Given all this, it seems like CNNs wouldn’t be a good fit for NLP tasks. Recurrent Neural Networks make more intuitive sense. They resemble how we process language (or at least how we think we process language): Reading sequentially from left to right. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that CNNs don’t work.  All models are wrong, but some are useful. It turns out that CNNs applied to NLP problems perform quite well. The simple Bag of Words model is an obvious oversimplification with incorrect assumptions, but has nonetheless been the standard approach for years and lead to pretty good results.

A big argument for CNNs is that they are fast. Very fast. Convolutions are a central part of computer graphics and implemented on a hardware level on GPUs. Compared to something like n-grams, CNNs are also efficient in terms of representation. With a large vocabulary, computing anything more than 3-grams can quickly become expensive. Even Google doesn’t provide anything beyond 5-grams. Convolutional Filters learn good representations automatically, without needing to represent the whole vocabulary. It’s completely reasonable to have filters of size larger than 5. I like to think that many of the learned filters in the first layer are capturing features quite similar (but not limited) to n-grams, but represent them in a more compact way.

CNN Hyperparameters

Before explaining at how CNNs are applied to NLP tasks, let’s look at some of the choices you need to make when building a CNN. Hopefully this will help you better understand the literature in the field.

Narrow vs. Wide convolution

When I explained convolutions above I neglected a little detail of how we apply the filter. Applying a 3×3 filter at the center of the matrix works fine, but what about the edges? How would you apply the filter to the first element of a matrix that doesn’t have any neighboring elements to the top and left? You can use zero-padding. All elements that would fall outside of the matrix are taken to be zero. By doing this you can apply the filter to every element of your input matrix, and get a larger or equally sized output. Adding zero-padding is also called wide convolution, and not using zero-padding would be a narrow convolution. An example in 1D looks like this:

Narrow vs. Wide Convolution. Source: A Convolutional Neural Network for Modelling Sentences (2014)Fig.3 Narrow vs. Wide Convolution. Filter size 5, input size 7. Source: A Convolutional Neural Network for Modelling Sentences (2014)

You can see how wide convolution is useful, or even necessary, when you have a large filter relative to the input size. In the above, the narrow convolution yields  an output of size (7-5) + 1=3, and a wide convolution an output of size (7+2*4 - 5) + 1 =11. More generally, the formula for the output size is n_{out}=(n_{in} + 2*n_{padding} - n_{filter}) + 1 .

Stride Size

Another hyperparameter for your convolutions is the stride size, defining by how much you want to shift your filter at each step.  In all the examples above the stride size was 1, and consecutive applications of the filter overlapped. A larger stride size leads to fewer applications of the filter and a smaller output size. The following from the Stanford cs231 website shows stride sizes of 1 and 2 applied to a one-dimensional input:

Convolution Stride Size. Left: Stride size 1. Right: Stride size 2. Source: http://cs231n.github.io/convolutional-networks/ Fig. 4 Convolution Stride Size. Left: Stride size 1. Right: Stride size 2. Source: http://cs231n.github.io/convolutional-networks/

In the literature we typically see stride sizes of 1, but a larger stride size may allow you to build a model that behaves somewhat similarly to a Recursive Neural Network, i.e. looks like a tree.


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