Last Updated on 28 January 2021

For multiclass classification problems, many online tutorials – and even François Chollet’s book *Deep Learning with Python*, which I think is one of the most intuitive books on deep learning with Keras – use **categorical crossentropy** for computing the loss value of your neural network.

However, traditional categorical crossentropy requires that your data is one-hot encoded and hence converted into categorical format. Often, this is not what your dataset looks like when you’ll start creating your models. Rather, you likely have feature vectors with integer targets – such as 0 to 9 for the numbers 0 to 9.

This means that you’ll have to convert these targets first. In Keras, this can be done with `to_categorical`

, which essentially applies one-hot encoding to your training set’s targets. When applied, you can start using categorical crossentropy.

But did you know that there exists another type of loss – **sparse categorical crossentropy** – with which you can leave the integers as they are, yet benefit from crossentropy loss? I didn’t when I just started with Keras, simply because pretty much every article I read performs one-hot encoding before applying regular categorical crossentropy loss.

In this blog, we’ll figure out how to *build a convolutional neural network with sparse categorical crossentropy loss*.

We’ll create an actual CNN with Keras. It’ll be a simple one – an extension of a CNN that we created before, with the MNIST dataset. However, doing that allows us to compare the model in terms of its performance – to actually see whether sparse categorical crossentropy does as good a job as the regular one.

**After reading this tutorial, you will…**

- Understand what
`to_categorical`

does when creating your TensorFlow/Keras models. - Why it’s not necessary if you have integer labels/targets, but why you will have to change your loss function.
- How
`sparse_categorical_crossentropy`

loss can be useful in that case.

Let’s go! 😎

*Note that model code is also available on GitHub.*

**Update 28/Jan/2021:** Added summary and code example to get started straight away. Performed textual improvements, changed header information and slight addition to title of the tutorial.

**Update 17/Nov/2020: **Made the code examples compatible with TensorFlow 2

**Update 01/Feb/2020**: Fixed an error in full model code.

## Table of contents

## Summary and code example: tf.keras.losses.sparse_categorical_crossentropy

Training a neural network involves passing data forward, through the model, and comparing predictions with ground truth labels. This comparison is done by a loss function. In multiclass classification problems, **categorical crossentropy loss** is the loss function of choice. However, it requires that your labels are one-hot encoded, which is not always the case.

In that case, **sparse categorical crossentropy loss** can be a good choice. This loss function performs the same type of loss – categorical crossentropy loss – but works on integer targets instead of one-hot encoded ones. Saves you that `to_categorical`

step which is common with TensorFlow/Keras models!

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```
# Compile the model
model.compile(loss=tensorflow.keras.losses.sparse_categorical_crossentropy,
optimizer=tensorflow.keras.optimizers.Adam(),
metrics=['accuracy'])
```

Code language: Python (python)

## Sparse categorical crossentropy vs normal categorical crossentropy

Have you also seen lines of code like these in your Keras projects?

Code language: Python (python)`target_train = tensorflow.keras.utils.to_categorical(target_train, no_classes) target_test = tensorflow.keras.utils.to_categorical(target_test, no_classes)`

Most likely, you have – because many blogs explaining how to create multiclass classifiers with Keras apply **categorical crossentropy**, which requires you to one-hot encode your target vectors.

Now you may wonder: what is one-hot encoding?

### One-hot encoding

Suppose that you have a classification problem where you have four target classes: { 0, 1, 2, 3 }.

Your dataset likely comes in this flavor: `{ feature vector } -> target`

, where your target is an integer value from { 0, 1, 2, 3 }.

However, as we saw in another blog on categorical crossentropy, its mathematical structure doesn’t allow us to feed it integers directly.

We’ll have to convert it into categorical format first – with one-hot encoding, or `to_categorical`

in Keras.

You’ll effectively transform your targets into this:

- For class 0: \([1, 0, 0, 0]\);
- For class 1: \([0, 1, 0, 0]\);
- For class 2: \([0, 0, 1, 0]\);
- For class 3: \([0, 0, 0, 1]\).

Note that when you have more classes, the trick goes on and on – you simply create **n**-dimensional vectors, where **n **equals the unique number of classes in your dataset.

### Categorical crossentropy

When converted into categorical data, you can apply **categorical crossentropy**:

Don’t worry – it’s a human pitfall to always think defensively when we see maths.

It’s not so difficult at all, to be frank, so make sure to read on!

What you see is obviously the categorical crossentropy formula. What it does is actually really simple: it iterates over all the possible classes `C`

predicted by the ML during the forward pass of your machine learning training process.

For each class, it takes a look at the target observation of the class – i.e., whether the actual class matching the prediction in your training set is 0 or one. Additionally, it computes the (natural) logarithm of the prediction of the observation (the odds that it belongs to that class). From this, it follows that only one such value is relevant – the *actual* target. For this, it simply computes the natural log value which increases significantly when it is further away from 1:

### Sparse categorical crossentropy

Now, it could be the case that your dataset is not categorical at first … and possibly, that it is too large in order to use `to_categorical`

. In that case, it would be rather difficult to use categorical crossentropy, since it is dependent on categorical data.

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However, when you have integer targets instead of categorical vectors as targets, you can use **sparse categorical crossentropy**. It’s an integer-based version of the categorical crossentropy loss function, which means that we don’t have to convert the targets into categorical format anymore.

## Creating a CNN with TensorFlow 2 and Keras

Let’s now create a CNN with Keras that uses sparse categorical crossentropy. In some folder, create a file called `model.py`

and open it in some code editor.

### Today’s dataset: MNIST

As usual, like in our previous blog on creating a (regular) CNN with Keras, we use the MNIST dataset. This dataset, which contains thousands of 28×28 pixel handwritten digits (individual numbers from 0-9), is one of the standard datasets in machine learning training programs because it’s a very easy and normalized one. The images are also relatively small and high in quantity, which benefits the predictive and generalization power of your model when trained properly. This way, one can really focus on the machine learning aspects of an exercise, rather than the data related issues.

Let’s go!

### Software dependencies

If we wish to run the sparse categorical crossentropy Keras CNN, it’s necessary to install a few software tools:

- Obviously, you need
**TensorFlow**, version 2.x (i.e. some version of 2), which comes with Keras installed as`tensorflow.keras`

. - By consequence, you’ll need to install peer dependencies such as
**NumPy**. You’ll also need them for processing the data. - In order to run any of those, you need to have a working
**Python**installation; preferably, your Python version is 3.6+.

Preferably, you run your model in an **Anaconda** environment. This way, you will be able to install your packages in a unique environment with which other packages do not interfere. Mingling Python packages is often a tedious job, which often leads to trouble. Anaconda resolves this by allowing you to use *environments* or isolated sandboxes in which your code can run. Really recommended!

### Our model

This will be our model for today:

```
from tensorflow.keras.datasets import mnist
from tensorflow.keras.models import Sequential
from tensorflow.keras.layers import Dense, Dropout, Flatten
from tensorflow.keras.layers import Conv2D, MaxPooling2D
# Model configuration
img_width, img_height = 28, 28
batch_size = 250
no_epochs = 25
no_classes = 10
validation_split = 0.2
verbosity = 1
# Load MNIST dataset
(input_train, target_train), (input_test, target_test) = mnist.load_data()
# Reshape data
input_train = input_train.reshape(input_train.shape[0], img_width, img_height, 1)
input_test = input_test.reshape(input_test.shape[0], img_width, img_height, 1)
input_shape = (img_width, img_height, 1)
# Parse numbers as floats
input_train = input_train.astype('float32')
input_test = input_test.astype('float32')
# Normalize data
input_train = input_train / 255
input_test = input_test / 255
# Create the model
model = Sequential()
model.add(Conv2D(32, kernel_size=(3, 3), activation='relu', input_shape=input_shape))
model.add(MaxPooling2D(pool_size=(2, 2)))
model.add(Dropout(0.25))
model.add(Conv2D(64, kernel_size=(3, 3), activation='relu'))
model.add(MaxPooling2D(pool_size=(2, 2)))
model.add(Dropout(0.25))
model.add(Flatten())
model.add(Dense(256, activation='relu'))
model.add(Dense(no_classes, activation='softmax'))
# Compile the model
model.compile(loss=tensorflow.keras.losses.sparse_categorical_crossentropy,
optimizer=tensorflow.keras.optimizers.Adam(),
metrics=['accuracy'])
# Fit data to model
model.fit(input_train, target_train,
batch_size=batch_size,
epochs=no_epochs,
verbose=verbosity,
validation_split=validation_split)
# Generate generalization metrics
score = model.evaluate(input_test, target_test, verbose=0)
print(f'Test loss: {score[0]} / Test accuracy: {score[1]}')
```

Code language: Python (python)

Let’s break creating the model apart.

#### Adding imports

First, we add our imports – packages and functions that we’ll need for our model to work as intended.

```
from tensorflow.keras.datasets import mnist
from tensorflow.keras.models import Sequential
from tensorflow.keras.layers import Dense, Dropout, Flatten
from tensorflow.keras.layers import Conv2D, MaxPooling2D
```

Code language: Python (python)

More specifically, we…

- Import the
**MNIST**dataset. It comes with Keras by default because it’s a perfect dataset for educational purposes. When you use a model with this dataset for the first time, Keras will download the dataset automatically, after which it is stored locally – and you don’t ever have to worry about downloading the dataset again. Very user friendly. - Import the
**Sequential API**– which is one of the two APIs with which engineers can create Keras based models, the other being the Functional API. As Sequential is relatively easier than Functional, we’ll use it for this tutorial. - Import the
**Dense**layer, the**Dropout**function and the**Flatten**layer. Dense layers are used for the classification part of the CNN; Dropout adds random noise which reduces the odds of overfitting, and Flatten converts the multidimensional output of the convolutional layers (which interpret your images) into a onedimensional vector to be used by the Dense layers (for classifying the interpretations into the correct classes). - Additionally, we import
**Conv2D**and**MaxPooling2D**, which are used for image interpretation and downscaling – i.e., the first part of your CNN.

#### Model configuration

Next up, model configuration:

```
# Model configuration
img_width, img_height = 28, 28
batch_size = 250
no_epochs = 25
no_classes = 10
validation_split = 0.2
verbosity = 1
```

Code language: Python (python)

We specify image width and image height, which are 28 for both given the images in the MNIST dataset. We specify a batch size of 250, which means that during training 250 images at once will be processed. When all images are processed, one completes an **epoch**, of which we will have 25 in total during the training of our model. Additionally, we specify the number of classes in advance – 10, the numbers 0 to 9. 20% of our training set will be set apart for validating the model after every batch, and for educational purposes we set model verbosity to True (1) – which means that all possible output is actually displayed on screen.

#### Preparing MNIST data

Next, we load and prepare the MNIST data:

```
# Load MNIST dataset
(input_train, target_train), (input_test, target_test) = mnist.load_data()
# Reshape data
input_train = input_train.reshape(input_train.shape[0], img_width, img_height, 1)
input_test = input_test.reshape(input_test.shape[0], img_width, img_height, 1)
input_shape = (img_width, img_height, 1)
```

Code language: Python (python)

What we do is simple – we use `mnist.load_data()`

to load the MNIST data into four Python variables, representing inputs and targets for both the training and testing datasets.

Additionally, we reshape the data so that TensorFlow will accept it.

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#### Additional preparations

Additionally, we perform some other preparations which concern the *data* instead of how it is handled by your system:

```
# Parse numbers as floats
input_train = input_train.astype('float32')
input_test = input_test.astype('float32')
# Normalize data
input_train = input_train / 255
input_test = input_test / 255
```

Code language: Python (python)

We first parse the numbers as floats. This benefits the optimization step of the training process.

Additionally, we normalize the data, which benefits the training process as well.

#### Model architecture

We then create the architecture of our model:

```
# Create the model
model = Sequential()
model.add(Conv2D(32, kernel_size=(3, 3), activation='relu', input_shape=input_shape))
model.add(MaxPooling2D(pool_size=(2, 2)))
model.add(Dropout(0.25))
model.add(Conv2D(64, kernel_size=(3, 3), activation='relu'))
model.add(MaxPooling2D(pool_size=(2, 2)))
model.add(Dropout(0.25))
model.add(Flatten())
model.add(Dense(256, activation='relu'))
model.add(Dense(no_classes, activation='softmax'))
```

Code language: Python (python)

To be frank: the architecture of our model doesn’t really matter for showing that sparse categorical crossentropy really works. In fact, you can use the architecture you think is best for your machine learning problem. However, we put up the architecture above because it is very generic and hence works well in many simple classification scenarios:

- We use two convolutional blocks which comprise a 2-dimensional convolutional layer, max pooling and Dropout. The convolutional layer interprets the features into feature maps, which are subsequently downsampled (made smaller / less granular) by the max pooling operation. Subsequently, random Dropout noise is introduced to reduce the odds of overfitting, which means that your model is tailored too specifically to your training data, and might not work anymore with data it has never seen.
- We then flatten the multidimensional input into a 1-dimensional vector that can be handled by the densely-connected layers. We specify the number of output neurons to
`no_classes`

which in the case of the MNIST dataset is 10: each neuron generates the probability (summated to one considering all neurons together) that the input belongs to one of the 10 classes in the MNIST scenario. - We use two Dense layers which essentially give the CNN its classification power. Note that ReLU is used as an activation function throughout all layers given its simplicity and relative power in today’s deep learning problems. However, the last layer uses a Softmax activation, which essentially generates a multiclass probability distribution over all the classes that are available in your targets.

#### Model compilation: hyperparameter tuning

We next compile the model, which involves configuring it by means of hyperparameter tuning:

```
# Compile the model
model.compile(loss=tensorflow.keras.losses.sparse_categorical_crossentropy,
optimizer=tensorflow.keras.optimizers.Adam(),
metrics=['accuracy'])
```

Code language: Python (python)

We specify the loss function used – **sparse categorical crossentropy!** We use it together with the Adam optimizer, which is one of the standard ones used today in very generic scenarios, and use accuracy as an additional metric, since it is more intuitive to humans.

#### Training and evaluation

Next, we fit the data following the specification created in the model configuration step and specify evaluation metrics that test the trained model with the testing data:

```
# Fit data to model
model.fit(input_train, target_train,
batch_size=batch_size,
epochs=no_epochs,
verbose=verbosity,
validation_split=validation_split)
# Generate generalization metrics
score = model.evaluate(input_test, target_test, verbose=0)
print(f'Test loss: {score[0]} / Test accuracy: {score[1]}')
```

Code language: Python (python)

Now, we can start the training process. Open a command prompt, possible the Anaconda one navigating to your environment by means of `conda activate <env_name>`

, and navigate to the folder storing `model.py`

by means of the `cd`

function.

Next, start the training process with Python: `python model.py`

.

## Model performance

You should then see something like this:

`48000/48000 [==============================] - 21s 431us/step - loss: 0.3725 - acc: 0.8881 - val_loss: 0.0941 - val_acc: 0.9732 Epoch 2/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 6s 124us/step - loss: 0.0974 - acc: 0.9698 - val_loss: 0.0609 - val_acc: 0.9821 Epoch 3/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 6s 122us/step - loss: 0.0702 - acc: 0.9779 - val_loss: 0.0569 - val_acc: 0.9832 Epoch 4/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 6s 124us/step - loss: 0.0548 - acc: 0.9832 - val_loss: 0.0405 - val_acc: 0.9877 Epoch 5/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 6s 122us/step - loss: 0.0450 - acc: 0.9861 - val_loss: 0.0384 - val_acc: 0.9873 Epoch 6/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 6s 122us/step - loss: 0.0384 - acc: 0.9877 - val_loss: 0.0366 - val_acc: 0.9886 Epoch 7/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 5s 100us/step - loss: 0.0342 - acc: 0.9892 - val_loss: 0.0321 - val_acc: 0.9907 Epoch 8/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 5s 94us/step - loss: 0.0301 - acc: 0.9899 - val_loss: 0.0323 - val_acc: 0.9898 Epoch 9/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 76us/step - loss: 0.0257 - acc: 0.9916 - val_loss: 0.0317 - val_acc: 0.9907 Epoch 10/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 76us/step - loss: 0.0238 - acc: 0.9922 - val_loss: 0.0318 - val_acc: 0.9910 Epoch 11/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 82us/step - loss: 0.0214 - acc: 0.9928 - val_loss: 0.0324 - val_acc: 0.9905 Epoch 12/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 85us/step - loss: 0.0201 - acc: 0.9934 - val_loss: 0.0296 - val_acc: 0.9907 Epoch 13/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 88us/step - loss: 0.0173 - acc: 0.9940 - val_loss: 0.0302 - val_acc: 0.9914 Epoch 14/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 79us/step - loss: 0.0157 - acc: 0.9948 - val_loss: 0.0306 - val_acc: 0.9912 Epoch 15/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 85us/step - loss: 0.0154 - acc: 0.9949 - val_loss: 0.0308 - val_acc: 0.9910 Epoch 16/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 84us/step - loss: 0.0146 - acc: 0.9950 - val_loss: 0.0278 - val_acc: 0.9918 Epoch 17/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 84us/step - loss: 0.0134 - acc: 0.9954 - val_loss: 0.0302 - val_acc: 0.9911 Epoch 18/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 79us/step - loss: 0.0129 - acc: 0.9956 - val_loss: 0.0280 - val_acc: 0.9922 Epoch 19/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 80us/step - loss: 0.0096 - acc: 0.9968 - val_loss: 0.0358 - val_acc: 0.9908 Epoch 20/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 79us/step - loss: 0.0114 - acc: 0.9960 - val_loss: 0.0310 - val_acc: 0.9899 Epoch 21/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 86us/step - loss: 0.0086 - acc: 0.9970 - val_loss: 0.0300 - val_acc: 0.9922 Epoch 22/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 88us/step - loss: 0.0088 - acc: 0.9970 - val_loss: 0.0320 - val_acc: 0.9915 Epoch 23/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 87us/step - loss: 0.0080 - acc: 0.9971 - val_loss: 0.0320 - val_acc: 0.9919 Epoch 24/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 87us/step - loss: 0.0083 - acc: 0.9969 - val_loss: 0.0416 - val_acc: 0.9887 Epoch 25/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 86us/step - loss: 0.0083 - acc: 0.9969 - val_loss: 0.0334 - val_acc: 0.9917 Test loss: 0.02523074444185986 / Test accuracy: 0.9932`

25 epochs as configured, with impressive scores in both the validation and testing phases. It pretty much works as well as the classifier created with categorical crossentropy – and I actually think the difference can be attributed to the relative randomness of the model optimization process:

`Epoch 25/25 48000/48000 [==============================] - 4s 85us/step - loss: 0.0072 - acc: 0.9975 - val_loss: 0.0319 - val_acc: 0.9925 Test loss: 0.02579820747410522 / Test accuracy: 0.9926`

## Recap

Well, today, we’ve seen how to create a Convolutional Neural Network (and by consequence, any model) with **sparse categorical crossentropy** in Keras. If you have integer targets in your dataset, which happens in many cases, you usually perform `to_categorical`

in order to use multiclass crossentropy loss. With sparse categorical crossentropy, this is no longer necessary. This blog demonstrated this by means of an example Keras implementation of a CNN that classifies the MNIST dataset.

Model code is also available on GitHub, if it benefits you.

I hope this blog helped you – if it did, or if you have any questions, let me know in the comments section! 👇 I’m happy to answer any questions you may have 😊 Thanks and enjoy coding!

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## References

Chollet, F. (2017). *Deep Learning with Python*. New York, NY: Manning Publications.

Keras. (n.d.). Losses. Retrieved from https://keras.io/losses/

How to create a CNN classifier with Keras? – MachineCurve. (2019, September 24). Retrieved from https://www.machinecurve.com/index.php/2019/09/17/how-to-create-a-cnn-classifier-with-keras

About loss and loss functions – MachineCurve. (2019, October 4). Retrieved from https://www.machinecurve.com/index.php/2019/10/04/about-loss-and-loss-functions/

Thank you! I’ve learned very much from your post. Here I got a question: when using sparse_categorical_crossentropy, the taget can be integers like {1,4,0,2}, however why is the last layer still composed of no_classes layers? Shouldn’t it be one to generate just one integer prediction? Now that the last layer consists of no_classes layers, is what they generate still a predicton distribution? like {0.25,0.50,0.25}

Hi Yang,

Thanks for your compliment and your question. It’s a good one – why need a 10-neuron Softmax output instead of a one-node output with sparse categorical cross entropy is how I interpret it 🙂

To understand why, we’ll have to make a clear distinction between (1) the logit outputs of a neural network and (2) how sparse categorical cross entropy uses the Softmax-activated logits.

The logit outputs of a neural networkIf you wish to understand logits in more detail I’d refer you to this post, but in short, the logits layer are the outputs of the final layer

beforethey are fed to the Softmax activation function.In my code, we have 10 logits – and they stress the “importance” of that neuron for the class output – but they are not relative to each other. Softmax does this for us, relating the outputs together into a probability distribution where the sum of values equals 1 and where individual probabilities are >= 0 and <= 1, i.e. it produces a valid discrete probability distribution over the target classes.So, indeed, that could be something like [0.25, 0.50, 0.25]. Of course only if you have three classes.

What sparse categorical crossentropy doesAs indicated in the post, sparse categorical cross entropy compares integer target classes with integer target predictions. In Keras, it does so by always using the logits – even when Softmax is used; in that case, it simply takes the “values before Softmax” – and feeding them to a Tensorflow function which computes the sparse categorical crossentropy loss with logits. This function simply uses the logits and the target class to compute loss.

How this relates to each otherNow, the logits represent the “importance” of each class. Sparse categorical crossentropy loss makes use of these to compute the loss value. This is the answer as to why we still need `no_classes` in our output layer: the loss function doesn’t compare one output class i.e. one output value (`no_classes = 1` scenario) with the true target, but instead the logits i.e. the importance of each individual class with the true target.

So, in short:– It seems to be the case that `softmax` is not strictly necessary when using sparse categorical crossentropy loss. Instead, `linear` would work just as fine. However, using Softmax does not break Keras models, as it will use the logits (i.e. the before-Softmax outputs) internally.

– We still need an output layer of `no_classes` to make this work.

Hope this helps you 🙂

Regards,

Chris