Python TensorFlow Tutorial – Build a Neural Network

Updated for TensorFlow 2

Google’s TensorFlow has been a hot topic in deep learning
recently. The open source software, designed to allow efficient
computation of data flow graphs, is especially suited to deep
learning tasks. It is designed to be executed on single or
multiple CPUs and GPUs, making it a good option for complex deep
learning tasks.  In its most recent incarnation – version 1.0 –
it can even be run on certain mobile operating systems.  This
introductory tutorial to TensorFlow will give an overview of some
of the basic concepts of TensorFlow in Python.  These will be a
good stepping stone to building more complex deep learning
networks, such as
Convolution Neural Networks
natural language models
, and
Recurrent Neural Networks
in the package.  We’ll be creating a
simple three-layer neural network to classify the MNIST dataset. 
This tutorial assumes that you are familiar with the basics of
neural networks, which you can get up to scratch with in the

neural networks tutorial
if required.  To install TensorFlow,
follow the instructions here. The code for this
tutorial can be found in this
site’s GitHub repository
.  Once you’re done, you also might
want to check out a higher level deep learning library that sits on
top of TensorFlow called Keras – see
my Keras tutorial

First, let’s have a look at the main ideas of TensorFlow.

1.0 TensorFlow graphs

TensorFlow is based on graph based computation – “what on
earth is that?”, you might say.  It’s an alternative way
of conceptualising mathematical calculations.  Consider the
following expression $a = (b + c) * (c + 2)$.  We can break this
function down into the following components:

d &= b + c \
e &= c + 2 \
a &= d * e

Now we can represent these operations graphically as:

TensorFlow tutorial - simple computational graph

Simple computational graph

This may seem like a silly example – but notice a powerful
idea in expressing the equation this way: two of the computations
($d=b+c$ and $e=c+2$) can be performed in parallel.  By splitting
up these calculations across CPUs or GPUs, this can give us
significant gains in computational times.  These gains are a must
for big data applications and deep learning – especially for
complicated neural network architectures such as Convolutional
Neural Networks (CNNs) and Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs).  The
idea behind TensorFlow is to the ability to create these
computational graphs in code and allow significant performance
improvements via parallel operations and other efficiency

We can look at a similar graph in TensorFlow below, which shows
the computational graph of a three-layer neural network.

TensorFlow tutorial - data flow graph

TensorFlow data flow graph

The animated data flows between different nodes in the graph are
tensors which are multi-dimensional data arrays.  For instance, the
input data tensor may be 5000 x 64 x 1, which represents a 64 node
input layer with 5000 training samples.  After the input layer,
there is a hidden layer with rectified
linear units
as the activation function.  There is a final
output layer (called a “logit layer” in the above graph) that
uses cross-entropy as a cost/loss function.  At each point we see
the relevant tensors flowing to the “Gradients” block which
finally flows to the
Stochastic Gradient Descent
optimizer which performs the
back-propagation and gradient descent.

Here we can see how computational graphs can be used to
represent the calculations in neural networks, and this, of course,
is what TensorFlow excels at.  Let’s see how to perform some basic
mathematical operations in TensorFlow to get a feel for how it all

2.0 A Simple TensorFlow example

So how can we make TensorFlow perform the little example
calculation shown above – $a = (b + c) * (c + 2)$? First, there
is a need to introduce TensorFlow variables.  The code below shows
how to declare these objects:

import tensorflow as tf
# create TensorFlow variables
const = tf.Variable(2.0, name="const")
b = tf.Variable(2.0, name='b')
c = tf.Variable(1.0, name='c')

As can be observed above, TensorFlow variables can be declared
using the tf.Variable function.  The first argument is the value to
be assigned to the variable. The second is an optional name string
which can be used to label the constant/variable – this is handy
for when you want to do visualizations.  TensorFlow will infer the
type of the variable from the initialized value, but it can also be
set explicitly using the optional dtype argument.  TensorFlow has
many of its own types like tf.float32, tf.int32 etc.

The objects assigned to the Python variables are actually
TensorFlow tensors. Thereafter, they act like normal Python objects
– therefore, if you want to access the tensors you need to keep
track of the Python variables. In previous versions of TensorFlow,
there were global methods of accessing the tensors and operations
based on their names. This is no longer the case.

To examine the tensors stored in the Python variables, simply
call them as you would a normal Python variable. If we do this for
the “const” variable, you will see the following output:

<tf.Variable ‘const:0′ shape=() dtype=float32,

This output gives you a few different pieces of information –
first, is the name ‘const:0’ which has been assigned to the
tensor. Next is the data type, in this case, a TensorFlow float 32
type. Finally, there is a “numpy” value. TensorFlow variables
in TensorFlow 2 can be converted easily into numpy objects. Numpy
stands for Numerical Python and is a crucial library for Python
data science and machine learning. If you don’t know Numpy, what
it is, and how to use it, check out this site. The command to access the
numpy form of the tensor is simply .numpy() – the use of this
method will be shown shortly.

Next, some calculation operations are created:

# now create some operations
d = tf.add(b, c, name='d')
e = tf.add(c, const, name='e')
a = tf.multiply(d, e, name='a')

Note that d and e are automatically converted to tensor values
upon the execution of the operations. TensorFlow has a wealth of
calculation operations available to perform all sorts of
interactions between tensors, as you will discover as you progress
through this book.  The purpose of the operations shown above are
pretty obvious, and they instantiate the operations b + c, c + 2.0,
and d * e. However, these operations are an unwieldy way of doing
things in TensorFlow 2. The operations below are equivalent to
those above:

d = b + c
e = c + 2
a = d * e

To access the value of variable a, one can use the .numpy()
method as shown below:

print(f”Variable a is {a.numpy()}”)

The computational graph for this simple example can be
visualized by using the TensorBoard functionality that comes
packaged with TensorFlow. This is a great visualization feature and
is explained more in
this post
. Here is what the graph looks like in

TensorFlow tutorial - simple graph

Simple TensorFlow graph

The larger two vertices or nodes, b and c, correspond to the
variables. The smaller nodes correspond to the operations, and the
edges between the vertices are the scalar values emerging from the
variables and operations.

The example above is a trivial example – what would this look
like if there was an array of b values from which an array of
equivalent a values would be calculated? TensorFlow variables can
easily be instantiated using numpy variables, like the

b = tf.Variable(np.arange(0, 10), name='b')

Calling b shows the following:

<tf.Variable ‘b:0′ shape=(10,) dtype=int32, numpy=array([0,
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9])>

Note the numpy value of the tensor is an array. Because the
numpy variable passed during the instantiation is a range of int32
values, we can’t add it directly to c as c is of float32 type.
Therefore, the tf.cast operation, which changes the type of a
tensor, first needs to be utilized like so:

d = tf.cast(b, tf.float32) + c

Running the rest of the previous operations, using the new b
tensor, gives the following value for a:

Variable a is [ 3.  6.  9. 12. 15. 18. 21. 24. 27. 30.]

In numpy, the developer can directly access slices or individual
indices of an array and change their values directly. Can the same
be done in TensorFlow 2? Can individual indices and/or slices be
accessed and changed? The answer is yes, but not quite as
straight-forwardly as in numpy. For instance, if b was a simple
numpy array, one could easily execute the following b[1] = 10 –
this would change the value of the second element in the array to
the integer 10.


This will then flow through to a like so:

Variable a is [ 3. 33.  9. 12. 15. 18. 21. 24. 27. 30.]

The developer could also run the following, to assign a slice of
b values:

b[6:9].assign([10, 10, 10])

A new tensor can also be created by using the slice

f = b[2:5]

The explanations and code above show you how to perform some
basic tensor manipulations and operations. In the section below, an
example will be presented where a neural network is created using
the Eager paradigm in TensorFlow 2. It will show how to create a
training loop, perform a feed-forward pass through a neural network
and calculate and apply gradients to an optimization method.

3.0 A Neural Network Example

In this section, a simple three-layer neural network build in
TensorFlow is demonstrated.  In following chapters more complicated
neural network structures such as convolution neural networks and
recurrent neural networks are covered.  For this example, though,
it will be kept simple.

In this example, the MNIST dataset will be used that is packaged
as part of the TensorFlow installation. This MNIST dataset is a set
of 28×28 pixel grayscale images which represent hand-written
digits.  It has 60,000 training rows, 10,000 testing rows, and
5,000 validation rows. It is a very common, basic, image
classification dataset that is used in machine learning.

The data can be loaded by running the following:

from tensorflow.keras.datasets import mnist
(x_train, y_train), (x_test, y_test) = mnist.load_data()

As can be observed, the Keras MNIST data loader returns Python
tuples corresponding to the training and test set respectively
(Keras is another deep learning framework, now tightly integrated
with TensorFlow, as mentioned earlier). The data sizes of the
tuples defined above are:

  • x_train: (60,000 x 28 x 28)
  • y_train: (60,000)
  • x_test: (10,000 x 28 x 28)
  • y_test: (10,000)

The x data is the image information – 60,000 images of 28 x 28
pixels size in the training set. The images are grayscale (i.e
black and white) with maximum values, specifying the intensity of
whites, of 255. The x data will need to be scaled so that it
resides between 0 and 1, as this improves training efficiency. The
y data is the matching image labels – signifying what digit is
displayed in the image. This will need to be transformed to
“one-hot” format.

When using a standard, categorical cross-entropy loss function
(this will be shown later), a one-hot format is required when
training classification tasks, as the output layer of the neural
network will have the same number of nodes as the total number of
possible classification labels. The output node with the highest
value is considered as a prediction for that corresponding label.
For instance, in the MNIST task, there are 10 possible
classification labels – 0 to 9. Therefore, there will be 10
output nodes in any neural network performing this classification
task. If we have an example output vector of [0.01, 0.8, 0.25,
0.05, 0.10, 0.27, 0.55, 0.32, 0.11, 0.09], the maximum value is in
the second position / output node, and therefore this corresponds
to the digit “1”. To train the network to produce this sort of
outcome when the digit “1” appears, the loss needs to be
calculated according to the difference between the output of the
network and a “one-hot” array of the label 1. This one-hot
array looks like [0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0].

This conversion is easily performed in TensorFlow, as will be
demonstrated shortly when the main training loop is covered.

One final thing that needs to be considered is how to extract
the training data in batches of samples. The function below can
handle this:

def get_batch(x_data, y_data, batch_size):
    idxs = np.random.randint(0, len(y_data), batch_size)
    return x_data[idxs,:,:], y_data[idxs]

As can be observed in the code above, the data to be batched
i.e. the x and y data is passed to this function along with the
batch size. The first line of the function generates a random
vector of integers, with random values between 0 and the length of
the data passed to the function. The number of random integers
generated is equal to the batch size. The x and y data are then
returned, but the return data is only for those random indices
chosen. Note, that this is performed on numpy array objects – as
will be shown shortly, the conversion from numpy arrays to tensor
objects will be performed “on the fly” within the training

There is also the requirement for a loss function and a
feed-forward function, but these will be covered shortly.

# Python optimisation variables
epochs = 10
batch_size = 100

# normalize the input images by dividing by 255.0
x_train = x_train / 255.0
x_test = x_test / 255.0
# convert x_test to tensor to pass through model (train data will be converted to
# tensors on the fly)
x_test = tf.Variable(x_test)

First, the number of training epochs and the batch size are
created – note these are simple Python variables, not TensorFlow
variables. Next, the input training and test data, x_train and
x_test, are scaled so that their values are between 0 and 1. Input
data should always be scaled when training neural networks, as
large, uncontrolled, inputs can heavily impact the training
process. Finally, the test input data, x_test is converted into a
tensor. The random batching process for the training data is most
easily performed using numpy objects and functions. However, the
test data will not be batched in this example, so the full test
input data set x_test is converted into a tensor.

The next step is to setup the weight and bias variables for the
three-layer neural network.  There are always L – 1 number of
weights/bias tensors, where L is the number of layers.  These
variables are defined in the code below:

# now declare the weights connecting the input to the hidden layer
W1 = tf.Variable(tf.random.normal([784, 300], stddev=0.03), name='W1')
b1 = tf.Variable(tf.random.normal([300]), name='b1')
# and the weights connecting the hidden layer to the output layer
W2 = tf.Variable(tf.random.normal([300, 10], stddev=0.03), name='W2')
b2 = tf.Variable(tf.random.normal([10]), name='b2')

The weight and bias variables are initialized using the
tf.random.normal function – this function creates tensors of
random numbers, drawn from a normal distribution. It allows the
developer to specify things like the standard deviation of the
distribution from which the random numbers are drawn.

Note the shape of the variables. The W1 variable is a [784, 300]
tensor – the 784 nodes are the size of the input layer. This size
comes from the flattening of the input images – if we have 28
rows and 28 columns of pixels, flattening these out gives us 1 row
or column of 28 x 28 = 784 values.  The 300 in the declaration of
W1 is the number of nodes in the hidden layer. The W2 variable is a
[300, 10] tensor, connecting the 300-node hidden layer to the
10-node output layer. In each case, a name is given to the variable
for later viewing in TensorBoard – the TensorFlow visualization
package. The next step in the code is to create the computations
that occur within the nodes of the network. If the reader recalls,
the computations within the nodes of a neural network are of the
following form:

$$z = Wx + b$$


Where W is the weights matrix, x is the layer input vector, b is
the bias and f is the activation function of the node. These
calculations comprise the feed-forward pass of the input data
through the neural network. To execute these calculations, a
dedicated feed-forward function is created:

def nn_model(x_input, W1, b1, W2, b2):
    # flatten the input image from 28 x 28 to 784
    x_input = tf.reshape(x_input, (x_input.shape[0], -1))
    x = tf.add(tf.matmul(tf.cast(x_input, tf.float32), W1), b1)
    x = tf.nn.relu(x)
    logits = tf.add(tf.matmul(x, W2), b2)
    return logits

Examining the first line, the x_input data is reshaped from
(batch_size, 28, 28) to (batch_size, 784) – in other words, the
images are flattened out. On the next line, the input data is then
converted to tf.float32 type using the TensorFlow cast function.
This is important – the x­_input data comes in as tf.float64
type, and TensorFlow won’t perform a matrix multiplication
operation (tf.matmul) between tensors of different data types. This
re-typed input data is then matrix-multiplied by W1 using the
TensorFlow matmul function (which stands for matrix
multiplication). Then the bias b1 is added to this product. On the
line after this, the ReLU activation function is applied to the
output of this line of calculation. The ReLU function is usually
the best activation function to use in deep learning – the
reasons for this are discussed in
this post

The output of this calculation is then multiplied by the final
set of weights W2, with the bias b2 added. The output of this
calculation is titled logits. Note that no activation function has
been applied to this output layer of nodes (yet). In machine/deep
learning, the term “logits” refers to the un-activated output
of a layer of nodes.

The reason no activation function has been applied to this layer
is that there is a handy function in TensorFlow called
tf.nn.softmax_cross_entropy_with_logits. This function does two
things for the developer – it applies a softmax activation
function to the logits, which transforms them into a
quasi-probability (i.e. the sum of the output nodes is equal to 1).
This is a common activation function to apply to an output layer in
classification tasks. Next, it applies the cross-entropy loss
function to the softmax activation output. The cross-entropy loss
function is a commonly used loss in classification tasks. The
theory behind it is quite interesting, but it won’t be covered in
this book – a good summary can be found
. The code below applies this handy TensorFlow function,
and in this example,  it has been nested in another function called

def loss_fn(logits, labels):
    cross_entropy = tf.reduce_mean(tf.nn.softmax_cross_entropy_with_logits(labels=labels,
    return cross_entropy

The arguments to softmax_cross_entropy_with_logits are labels
and logits. The logits argument is supplied from the outcome of the
nn_model function. The usage of this function in the main training
loop will be demonstrated shortly. The labels argument is supplied
from the one-hot y values that are fed into loss_fn during the
training process. The output of the
softmax_cross_entropy_with_logits function will be the output of
the cross-entropy loss value for each sample in the batch. To train
the weights of the neural network, the average cross-entropy loss
across the samples needs to be minimized as part of the
optimization process. This is calculated by using the
tf.reduce_mean function, which, unsurprisingly, calculates the mean
of the tensor supplied to it.

The next step is to define an optimizer function. In many
examples within this book, the versatile Adam optimizer will be
used. The theory behind this optimizer is interesting, and is worth
further examination (such as shown here)
but won’t be covered in detail within this post. It is basically
a gradient descent method, but with sophisticated averaging of the
gradients to provide appropriate momentum to the learning. To
define the optimizer, which will be used in the main training loop,
the following code is run:

# setup the optimizer
optimizer = tf.keras.optimizers.Adam()

The Adam object can take a learning rate as input, but for the
present purposes, the default value is used.

3.1 Training the network

Now that the appropriate functions, variables and optimizers
have been created, it is time to define the overall training loop.
The training loop is shown below:

total_batch = int(len(y_train) / batch_size)
for epoch in range(epochs):
    avg_loss = 0
    for i in range(total_batch):
        batch_x, batch_y = get_batch(x_train, y_train, batch_size=batch_size)
        # create tensors
        batch_x = tf.Variable(batch_x)
        batch_y =..

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