How to use Keras sparse_categorical_crossentropy



In this quick tutorial, I am going to show you two simple examples to use the sparse_categorical_crossentropy loss function and the sparse_categorical_accuracy metric when compiling your Keras model.

Example one - MNIST classification

As one of the multi-class, single-label classification datasets, the task is to classify grayscale images of handwritten digits (28 pixels by 28 pixels), into their ten categories (0 to 9). Let's build a Keras CNN model to handle it with the last layer applied with "softmax" activation which outputs an array of ten probability scores(summing to 1). Each score will be the probability that the current digit image belongs to one of our 10 digit classes.

model = Sequential()
model.add(Conv2D(32, kernel_size=(3, 3),
                 input_shape=(1, 28, 28)))
model.add(Conv2D(64, (3, 3), activation='relu'))
model.add(MaxPooling2D(pool_size=(2, 2)))
model.add(Dense(128, activation='relu'))
model.add(Dense(10, activation='softmax'))

For such a model with output shape of (None, 10), the conventional way is to have the target outputs converted to the one-hot encoded array to match with the output shape, however, with the help of the sparse_categorical_crossentropy loss function, we can skip that step and keep the integers as targets.

All you need is replacing categorical_crossentropy with sparse_categorical_crossentropy when compiling the model like this.


# The conventional way
# model.compile(
#           optimizer=keras.optimizers.Adadelta(),
#           loss=keras.losses.categorical_crossentropy,
#           metrics=['accuracy'])

After that, you can train the model with integer targets, i.e. a one-dimensional array like

array([5, 0, 4, 1, 9 ...], dtype=uint8)

Note this won't affect the model output shape, it still outputs ten probability scores for each input sample.

Example two - character level sequence to sequence prediction

We'll train a model on the combined works of William Shakespeare, then use it to compose a play in the similar style.

Every character in the text blob is first converted to an integer by calling Python's built-in ord() function which returns an integer representing of a character as its ASCII value. For example, ord('a') returns the integer 97. As a result, we have a list of integers to represent the whole text.

Given a moving window of sequence length 100, the model learns to predict the sequence one time-step in the future. In other words, given characters of timesteps T0~T99 in the sequence, the model predicts characters of timesteps T1~T100.

Let's build a simple sequence to sequence model in Keras. 

def lstm_model(seq_len=100, batch_size=None, stateful=True, max_tokens = 256):
    """Language model: predict the next char given the current char."""
    source = tf.keras.Input(
        name='seed', shape=(seq_len,), batch_size=batch_size, dtype=tf.int32)

    embedding = tf.keras.layers.Embedding(input_dim=max_tokens, output_dim=EMBEDDING_DIM)(source)
    lstm_1 = tf.keras.layers.LSTM(EMBEDDING_DIM, stateful=stateful, return_sequences=True)(embedding)
    lstm_2 = tf.keras.layers.LSTM(EMBEDDING_DIM, stateful=stateful, return_sequences=True)(lstm_1)
    predicted_char = tf.keras.layers.TimeDistributed(tf.keras.layers.Dense(max_tokens, activation='softmax'))(lstm_2)
    model = tf.keras.Model(inputs=[source], outputs=[predicted_char])
    return model

training_model = lstm_model(seq_len=100, batch_size=128, stateful=False, max_tokens = MAX_TOKENS)

We can further visualize the structure of the model to understand its input and output shape respectively.


Even though the model has 3-dimensional output, when compiled with the loss function sparse_categorical_crossentropy, we can feed the training targets as sequences of integers. Similarly to the previous example, without the help of sparse_categorical_crossentropy, one need first to convert the output integers to one-hot encoded form to fit the model.

The training model is,

  • non-stateful
  • seq_len =100
  • batch_size = 128
  • Model input shape: (batch_size, seq_len)
  • Model output shape: (batch_size, seq_len, MAX_TOKENS)

Once the model is trained, we can make it "stateful" and predict five characters at a time. By making it stateful, the LSTMs' last state for each sample in a batch will be used as the initial state for the sample in the following batch, or put it simply, those five characters predicted at a time and following predicted batches are characters in one sequence.

The prediction model loads the trained model weights and predicts five chars at a time, it is,

  • stateful
  • seq_len =1, one character/batch
  • batch_size = 5
  • Model input shape: (batch_size, seq_len)
  • Model output shape: (batch_size, seq_len, MAX_TOKENS)
  • Need to call reset_states() before prediction to reset LSTMs' initial states.

For more implementation detail of the model, please refer to my GitHub repository.

Conclusion and further reading

This tutorial explores two examples using sparse_categorical_crossentropy to keep integer as chars' / multi-class classification labels without transforming to one-hot labels. So, the output of the model will be in softmax one-hot like shape while the labels are integers.

To learn the actual implementation of keras.backend.sparse_categorical_crossentropy and sparse_categorical_accuracy, you can find it on TensorFlow repository. Don't forget to download the source code for this tutorial on my GitHub.

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