5.4. Custom Layers
Open the notebook in Colab
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Open the notebook in Colab

One factor behind deep learning’s success is the availability of a wide range of layers that can be composed in creative ways to design architectures suitable for a wide variety of tasks. For instance, researchers have invented layers specifically for handling images, text, looping over sequential data, performing dynamic programming, etc. Sooner or later you will encounter (or invent) a layer that does not exist yet in the framework, In these cases, you must build a custom layer. In this section, we show you how.

5.4.1. Layers without Parameters

To start, we construct a custom layer that does not have any parameters of its own. This should look familiar if you recall our introduction to block in Section 5.1. The following CenteredLayer class simply subtracts the mean from its input. To build it, we simply need to inherit from the base layer class and implement the forward method.

from mxnet import gluon, np, npx
from mxnet.gluon import nn

class CenteredLayer(nn.Block):
    def __init__(self, **kwargs):

    def forward(self, x):
        return x - x.mean()
import torch
from torch import nn

class CenteredLayer(nn.Module):
    def __init__(self):

    def forward(self, x):
        return x - x.mean()
import tensorflow as tf

class CenteredLayer(tf.keras.Model):
    def __init__(self):

    def call(self, inputs):
        return inputs - tf.reduce_mean(inputs)

Let us verify that our layer works as intended by feeding some data through it.

layer = CenteredLayer()
layer(np.array([1, 2, 3, 4, 5]))
array([-2., -1.,  0.,  1.,  2.])
layer = CenteredLayer()
layer(torch.FloatTensor([1, 2, 3, 4, 5]))
tensor([-2., -1.,  0.,  1.,  2.])
layer = CenteredLayer()
layer(tf.constant([1, 2, 3, 4, 5]))
<tf.Tensor: shape=(5,), dtype=int32, numpy=array([-2, -1,  0,  1,  2], dtype=int32)>

We can now incorporate our layer as a component in constructing more complex models.

net = nn.Sequential()
net.add(nn.Dense(128), CenteredLayer())
net = nn.Sequential(nn.Linear(8, 128), CenteredLayer())
net = tf.keras.Sequential([tf.keras.layers.Dense(128), CenteredLayer()])

As an extra sanity check, we can send random data through the network and check that the mean is in fact 0. Because we are dealing with floating point numbers, we may still see a very small nonzero number due to quantization.

y = net(np.random.uniform(size=(4, 8)))
y = net(torch.rand(4, 8))
tensor(3.7253e-09, grad_fn=<MeanBackward0>)
y = net(tf.random.uniform((4, 8)))
<tf.Tensor: shape=(), dtype=float32, numpy=-1.3969839e-09>

5.4.2. Layers with Parameters

Now that we know how to define simple layers, let us move on to defining layers with parameters that can be adjusted through training. We can use the build-in method to create parameters, that provide some basic housekeeping functionality. In particular, they govern access, initialization, sharing, saving, and loading model parameters. This way, among other benefits, we will not need to write custom serialization routines for every custom layer.

Now let’s implement our own version of fully-connected layer. Recall that this layer requires two parameters, one to represent the weight and another for the bias. In this implementation, we bake in the ReLU activation as a default. This layer requires to input argument: in_units and units, which denote the number of inputs and outputs, respectively.

class MyDense(nn.Block):
    def __init__(self, units, in_units, **kwargs):
        self.weight = self.params.get('weight', shape=(in_units, units))
        self.bias = self.params.get('bias', shape=(units,))

    def forward(self, x):
        linear = np.dot(x, self.weight.data(ctx=x.ctx)) + self.bias.data(
        return npx.relu(linear)
class MyLinear(nn.Module):
    def __init__(self, in_units, units):
        self.weight = nn.Parameter(torch.randn(in_units, units))
        self.bias = nn.Parameter(torch.randn(units,))
    def forward(self, x):
        return torch.matmul(x, self.weight.data) + self.bias.data
class MyDense(tf.keras.Model):
    def __init__(self, units):
        self.units = units

    def build(self, x_shape):
        self.weight = self.add_weight(name='weight',
            shape=[x_shape[-1], self.units],
        self.bias = self.add_weight(
            name='bias', shape=[self.units],

    def call(self, x):
        return tf.matmul(x, self.weight) + self.bias

Next, we instantiate the MyDense class and access its model parameters.

dense = MyDense(units=3, in_units=5)
mydense0_ (
  Parameter mydense0_weight (shape=(5, 3), dtype=<class 'numpy.float32'>)
  Parameter mydense0_bias (shape=(3,), dtype=<class 'numpy.float32'>)
dense = MyLinear(5, 3)
Parameter containing:
tensor([[-0.7369,  0.0333, -0.0194],
        [-0.1880,  0.4304,  1.8267],
        [ 1.0550, -0.2087,  0.2842],
        [ 1.0064, -0.5954, -0.9896],
        [ 0.4355,  0.5734, -0.9411]], requires_grad=True)
dense = MyDense(3)
dense(tf.random.uniform((2, 5)))
[array([[-0.00533147,  0.0757737 , -0.04730298],
        [-0.02923788, -0.07978007, -0.12257975],
        [-0.01404445,  0.01176073, -0.02688973],
        [ 0.01846854,  0.06659373, -0.03493591],
        [-0.01556722, -0.01644986, -0.06405015]], dtype=float32),
 array([0., 0., 0.], dtype=float32)]

We can directly carry out forward calculations using custom layers.

dense(np.random.uniform(size=(2, 5)))
array([[0.        , 0.01633355, 0.        ],
       [0.        , 0.01581812, 0.        ]])
dense(torch.randn(2, 5))
tensor([[-0.9045, -0.4050, -1.1007],
        [-1.5936,  1.6497,  3.0404]])
dense(tf.random.uniform((2, 5)))
<tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 3), dtype=float32, numpy=
array([[-0.02212184,  0.04415859, -0.11289205],
       [-0.00948191,  0.03852629, -0.08940133]], dtype=float32)>

We can also construct models using custom layers. Once we have that we can use it just like the built-in dense layer.

net = nn.Sequential()
net.add(MyDense(8, in_units=64),
        MyDense(1, in_units=8))
net(np.random.uniform(size=(2, 64)))
       [0.0615553 ]])
net = nn.Sequential(MyLinear(64, 8), nn.ReLU(), MyLinear(8, 1))
net(torch.randn(2, 64))
net = tf.keras.models.Sequential([MyDense(8), MyDense(1)])
net(tf.random.uniform((2, 64)))
<tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 1), dtype=float32, numpy=
       [0.02433056]], dtype=float32)>

5.4.3. Summary

  • We can design custom layers via the basic layer class. This allows us to define flexible new layers that behave differently from any existing layers in the library.

  • Once defined, custom layers can be invoked in arbitrary contexts and architectures.

  • Layers can have local parameters, which can be created through build-in methods.

5.4.4. Exercises

  1. Design a layer that learns an affine transform of the data.

  2. Design a layer that takes an input and computes a tensor reduction, i.e., it returns \(y_k = \sum_{i, j} W_{ijk} x_i x_j\).

  3. Design a layer that returns the leading half of the Fourier coefficients of the data.