Learning about Deep Learning: Neural Network Architectures and Generative Models

Deep learning encompasses neural network architectures and generative models, which are key concepts in this field.

Deep learning encompasses neural network architectures and generative models, which are key concepts in this field.

June 26, 2023
Tamas Cser

Elevate Your Testing Career to a New Level with a Free, Self-Paced Functionize Intelligent Certification

Learn more
Deep learning encompasses neural network architectures and generative models, which are key concepts in this field.
Deep learning is a machine learning method that empowers machines to tackle complex tasks. Applications of deep learning are ushering in a new era of artificial intelligence.

In Part 1 of our 3-part blog series ‘Learning about Deep Learning’, we explore two key concepts that are instrumental to present day AI: neural network architecture and generative models. In short, neural network architectures serve as the backbone for understanding and processing diverse data types, and generative models unlock the ability to create new data samples that resemble the training data. 

In this article, we explore the versatile capabilities of neural network architectures and generative models, and their applications within the realm of deep learning.

What is Deep Learning?

Deep learning is a cutting-edge approach to machine learning that has gained immense popularity in recent years. It differs from traditional machine learning methods in that it employs deep neural networks, which are artificial neural networks with multiple layers that mimic the neural networks in a human brain. These networks are designed to learn and extract increasingly complex, abstract representations of data as information flows through each layer.

How Does it Work?

Deep learning works by training artificial neural networks with multiple layers, allowing them to learn hierarchical representations of data and make predictions or generate outputs. 

Here is a general overview of the steps involved in using deep learning:

1. Data Preparation: The first step in deep learning is preparing the data. This involves collecting and preprocessing the data, including cleaning, normalization, and splitting into training and testing datasets. The data should be in a format suitable to feed into a neural network.

Let’s look at an example: say you have a subscription-based service, and you want to predict customer churn. You start by collecting customer data, including their demographics, usage patterns, and previous interactions. To prepare the data, you clean it by removing any errors or inconsistencies, normalize it to ensure all features are on a similar scale, and split it into two sets: one for training the deep learning model and another for testing its performance.

2. Building the Neural Network: The next step is to define the architecture of the neural network. This involves determining the number and types of layers, the number of neurons in each layer, and the activation functions to be used. The architecture is chosen based on the nature of the data and the task at hand. For our churn prediction task, you choose a network with an input layer, a few hidden layers, and an output layer. Each neuron in the network performs computations and applies activation functions to introduce non-linearity.

3. Training the Neural Network: Now it's time to train the neural network using your prepared data. It's similar to teaching the model to recognize patterns and make predictions. Training the neural network involves iteratively presenting the training data to the network and adjusting the network's weights and biases to minimize the difference between the predicted output and the true output. This is done using optimization algorithms such as gradient descent. During training, the network learns to extract relevant features and patterns from the data.

Let’s say your objective is to reduce customer churn. You would gather historical customer data, including demographics, usage patterns, customer service interactions, and billing information. By training a deep learning model on this data, you could learn patterns and indicators that contribute to customer churn. The neural network would learn to recognize factors such as long periods of inactivity, frequent calls to customer service, or sudden changes in usage patterns. This enables you to proactively identify customers at high risk of churn and take targeted actions to retain them.

4. Evaluation and Tuning: After training, you evaluate the performance of the neural network on a separate test set. You want to know how well it generalizes to new, unseen data. You calculate metrics such as accuracy, precision, and recall to measure its performance. If the results are not satisfactory, you can fine-tune the hyperparameters of the network, such as the learning rate or batch size, to improve its predictive accuracy.

Applying this step to predict customer churn: after training the model on a dataset containing historical customer behavior, you would evaluate its performance by comparing the predicted churn status with the actual churn status of a separate test set. If the model shows lower accuracy or precision, you would adjust hyperparameters such as the threshold for churn prediction or incorporate additional features, to improve the model's performance and enhance its ability to identify customers at risk of churning.

5. Prediction or Generation: Once the network is trained and evaluated, it can be used to make predictions or generate outputs for new, unseen data. The input data is fed into the trained network, and the network produces the predicted output. 

This prediction can guide your business decisions, such as targeting specific interventions to retain customers at high risk of churn. If you were using a generative model instead, it could generate new customer profiles that resemble your existing customer base and help you explore potential customer segments.

6. Iterative Improvement: Deep learning often involves an iterative process of refining the network's architecture, hyperparameters, and training strategies to achieve better performance. You might experiment with different architectures, such as adding more layers or changing the number of neurons per layer. You could also try different regularization techniques to prevent overfitting, explore alternative optimization algorithms, or modify preprocessing methods to enhance the model's performance. This iterative improvement helps you fine-tune your model to achieve better accuracy and meet your business objectives.

Neural Network Architectures and Generative Models 

Neural network architectures and generative models enable machines to learn from data and generate valuable insights.

Neural network architectures have wide-ranging applications in many fields, including image classification, object detection, speech recognition, natural language processing, recommendation systems, autonomous driving, and drug discovery.

Similarly generative models also have diverse applications across various domains, such as image generation, text generation, anomaly detection, data augmentation, medical image analysis, virtual reality, gaming, and data compression. They enable the generation of realistic images, coherent text, identification of anomalies, enhancement of training data, improved medical image analysis, immersive virtual experiences, and efficient data compression.

Let's dive in and explore how neural network architectures and generative models function.

Neural Network Architectures

Neural network architectures are the building blocks of deep learning models. They consist of interconnected nodes, called neurons, which are organized in layers. Each neuron receives inputs, computes mathematical operations, and produces outputs. 

Main Components of Neural Network Architecture

Neural network architectures consist of several components that work together to process and learn from data. The main components of a neural network architecture are:

  1. Input Layer: The input layer is the initial layer of the neural network and is responsible for receiving the input data. Each neuron in the input layer represents a feature or attribute of the input data.
  2. Hidden Layers: Hidden layers are the intermediate layers between the input and output layers. They perform computations and transform the input data through a series of weighted connections. The number of hidden layers and the number of neurons in each layer can vary depending on the complexity of the task and the amount of data available.
  3. Neurons (Nodes): Neurons, also known as nodes, are the individual computing units within a neural network. Each neuron receives input from the previous layer or directly from the input layer, performs a computation using weights and biases, and produces an output value using an activation function.
  4. Weights and Biases: Weights and biases are parameters associated with the connections between neurons. The weights determine the strength or importance of the connections, while the biases introduce a constant that helps control the neuron's activation. These parameters are adjusted during the training process to optimize the network's performance.
  5. Activation Functions: Activation functions are special mathematical formulas that add non-linear behavior to the network and allow it to learn complex patterns. Common activation functions include the sigmoid function, the rectified linear unit (ReLU), and the hyperbolic tangent (tanh) function. Each neuron applies the activation function to the weighted sum of its inputs to produce the output. Each function behaves differently and has its own characteristics. They help the network process and transform the input information, making it more suitable for capturing the complexity of real-world data. Activation functions help neurons make decisions and capture intricate relationships in the data, making neural networks powerful tools for pattern recognition and accurate predictions.
  6. Output Layer: The output layer is the final layer of the neural network that produces the network's predictions or outputs after processing the input data. The number of neurons in the output layer depends on the nature of the task. For binary classification tasks, where the goal is to determine whether something belongs to one of two categories (e.g., yes/no, true/false), the output layer typically consists of a single neuron. For multi-class classification tasks, where there are more than two categories to consider (e.g., classifying images into different objects), the output layer consists of multiple neurons. 
  7. Loss Function: The loss function measures the discrepancy between the network's predicted output and the true output. It quantifies the network's performance during training and serves as a guide for adjusting the weights and biases. For example, if the task involves predicting numerical values, like estimating the price of a house based on its features, the mean squared error loss function may be used. This function calculates the average of the squared differences between the network's predicted values and the true values. On the other hand, if the task involves classification, where the goal is to assign input data to different categories, a loss function called cross-entropy is often used. Cross-entropy measures the difference between the predicted probabilities assigned by the network and the true labels of the data. It helps the network understand how well it is classifying the input into the correct categories.

These components work together to process input data, propagate information through the network, and produce the desired output. The weights and biases are adjusted during the training process through optimization algorithms to minimize the loss function and improve the network's performance.

Types of neural network architectures

  1. Feedforward Neural Networks (FNNs): An FNN is the most fundamental type of neural network, where information flows in one direction, from the input layer to the output layer. FNNs are used for tasks such as classification, regression, and pattern recognition.
  2. Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs): CNNs are particularly effective for processing grid-like data, such as images and videos. They utilize convolutional layers to capture spatial relationships and identify features such as edges, textures, and shapes in the data to extract local patterns and hierarchical representations. This helps in tasks like image classification, object detection, and image segmentation.
  3. Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs): RNNs are designed to process sequential data, where the order of inputs matters. They utilize recurrent connections that allow information to persist, making them suitable for tasks like speech recognition, language translation, and text generation.
  4. Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) Networks: LSTMs are a type of RNN that addresses the vanishing gradient problem, a phenomenon where the gradients used to update the network's weights and biases become extremely small, making it challenging for the network to learn from distant past information in the sequence. LSTMs have memory cells and gating mechanisms that help retain and retrieve information over extended time intervals and allow for the capture of long-term dependencies in sequential data.

Generative Models 

A generative model is a type of model in deep learning that aims to identify underlying patterns in the training data, learn the characteristics of the data, and generate new data samples that resemble it. 

Generative models operate by learning the joint probability distribution of the input data and the corresponding labels or target variables. Labels or target variables refer to the desired outputs that we want the generative model to learn and predict, and the joint probability distribution captures the statistical relationship between the input data and the corresponding labels. Once a generative model is trained on a dataset, it learns the underlying distribution of the input data and labels. This learned distribution serves as a probabilistic model of the training data. The generative model samples from this learned distribution to generate new data samples. 

Main Components of Generative Models 

The main components of generative models are:

  1. Latent Space: The latent space is an abstract, low-dimensional space where the generative model encodes the essential features and characteristics of the training data. It captures the underlying structure and variations in the data distribution. For example, imagine you have a dataset of customer preferences for different product attributes. The latent space could capture the key factors that drive these preferences, such as price sensitivity, brand loyalty, or specific feature preferences.
  2. Encoder: The encoder network maps the input data to the latent space. It compresses and encodes the input data into a meaningful representation that can be used by the decoder to reconstruct the input or generate new samples. For example, the encoder could take customer demographic information and purchasing behavior as input and learn to encode them into latent variables that capture the underlying factors driving customer preferences.
  3. Decoder: The decoder network, also known as the generator, reconstructs the input data from the latent space representation or generates new data samples. It learns to transform the latent variables into meaningful data points that resemble the training data distribution. Going back to the example about customer preferences - the decoder could generate personalized product recommendations for customers based on their latent preferences, creating new product options that align with their unique needs.
  4. Training Data: Generative models require a training dataset that represents the target data distribution. This dataset is used to train the model to learn the underlying patterns and statistics of the data. The quality and diversity of the training data play a crucial role in the generative model's ability to generate realistic samples. When it comes to customer data, the training data could consist of historical customer data, including demographics, purchase history, and product attributes. The generative model would learn from this dataset to generate new customer profiles or simulate customer behavior.
  5. Loss Function: The loss function quantifies the discrepancy between the generated output and the target output. It guides the training process by providing a measure of how well the generative model is capturing the training data distribution. Different loss functions are used based on the specific generative model architecture and the nature of the data being generated. For example, the loss function could evaluate how closely the generated product recommendations align with customers' actual purchasing patterns, aiming to minimize the difference between the recommended products and the products customers ultimately choose.
  6. Sampling Mechanism: Generative models allow sampling from the learned distribution to generate new data samples. The sampling mechanism involves drawing random samples from the latent space and decoding them into meaningful data points. The sampling process can be controlled to generate specific types of samples or explore the diversity of the learned distribution. Your sampling mechanism could be used to generate simulated customer profiles or generate hypothetical purchasing scenarios based on the learned distribution of customer preferences.
  7. Evaluation Metrics: Evaluating the performance of generative models is essential to assess the quality and diversity of the generated samples. Evaluation metrics such as likelihood-based measures, visual inspection, or domain-specific evaluation criteria are used to evaluate the fidelity, diversity, and coherence of the generated data.

Types of Generative Models

There are several types of generative models, but there are two prominent ones that you should be aware of:

  1. Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs): GANs consist of two neural networks, a generator and a discriminator, that engage in a competitive training process. The generator network learns to generate synthetic samples, while the discriminator network learns to distinguish between real and synthetic samples. The generator aims to produce samples that are so realistic that the discriminator cannot distinguish them from real data. Through an iterative training process, GANs learn to generate increasingly realistic samples that closely resemble the training data.

Imagine you work at a fashion e-commerce company, and you want to generate realistic images of clothing items to showcase new designs. By training a GAN on a dataset of existing product images, the generator network could create synthetic images of clothing items that look almost identical to real product photos. This would allow you to generate virtual representations of new designs without the need for costly photoshoots.

  1. Variational Autoencoders (VAEs): VAEs combine the power of autoencoders, which are neural networks designed for dimensionality reduction and reconstruction, with the principles of variational inference. They consist of an encoder network that maps input data to a latent space and a decoder network that reconstructs the input data from the latent representation. VAEs allow for sampling from the latent space, enabling the generation of new data samples by sampling latent variables and decoding them to produce synthetic data.

Let’s say you are dealing with market research data, and you want to generate synthetic data to protect the privacy of respondents while still preserving the statistical characteristics of the original dataset. By training a VAE on a dataset containing sensitive customer information, such as demographics and purchasing behavior, the encoder-decoder architecture can learn to encode the input data into a lower-dimensional latent space. From this latent space, you can generate synthetic customer profiles that closely resemble the original dataset's characteristics, allowing you to perform data analysis and market segmentation without revealing sensitive information.


As we continue to advance our understanding of deep learning, it becomes increasingly important to understand neural network architectures and generative models. 

Neural network architectures form the fundamental building blocks for processing different types of data, allowing us to tackle tasks such as image classification, natural language processing, and complex image analysis. Understanding the intricacies of neural network architectures will help us design effective models tailored to specific domains.

Generative models provide us with the ability to generate new data samples that closely resemble the patterns and characteristics of the training set. This opens up exciting possibilities for data augmentation, synthetic data generation, privacy preservation, and simulation scenarios. Generative models unlock the power of creating realistic and diverse data instances, enabling us to gain insights, conduct experiments, and solve complex problems in a variety of industries.

Mastering these concepts will help us leverage deep learning to drive innovation, make informed decisions, and unlock new opportunities in our pursuit of solving real-world challenges.