2.5. Automatic Differentiation

As we have explained in Section 2.4, differentiation is a crucial step in nearly all deep learning optimization algorithms. While the calculations for taking these derivatives are straightforward, requiring only some basic calculus, for complex models, working out the updates by hand can be a pain (and often error-prone).

The autograd package expedites this work by automatically calculating derivatives, i.e., automatic differentiation. And while many other libraries require that we compile a symbolic graph to take automatic derivatives, autograd allows us to take derivatives while writing ordinary imperative code. Every time we pass data through our model, autograd builds a graph on the fly, tracking which data combined through which operations to produce the output. This graph enables autograd to subsequently backpropagate gradients on command. Here, backpropagate simply means to trace through the computational graph, filling in the partial derivatives with respect to each parameter.

from mxnet import autograd, np, npx

2.5.1. A Simple Example

As a toy example, say that we are interested in differentiating the function \(y = 2\mathbf{x}^{\top}\mathbf{x}\) with respect to the column vector \(\mathbf{x}\). To start, let’s create the variable x and assign it an initial value.

x = np.arange(4)
array([0., 1., 2., 3.])

Note that before we even calculate the gradient of \(y\) with respect to \(\mathbf{x}\), we will need a place to store it. It is important that we do not allocate new memory every time we take a derivative with respect to a parameter because we will often update the same parameters thousands or millions of times and could quickly run out of memory.

Note also that a gradient of a scalar-valued function with respect to a vector \(\mathbf{x}\) is itself vector-valued and has the same shape as \(\mathbf{x}\). Thus it is intuitive that in code, we will access a gradient taken with respect to x as an attribute of the ndarray x itself. We allocate memory for an ndarray’s gradient by invoking its attach_grad method.


After we calculate a gradient taken with respect to x, we will be able to access it via the grad attribute. As a safe default, x.grad is initialized as an array containing all zeros. That is sensible because our most common use case for taking gradient in deep learning is to subsequently update parameters by adding (or subtracting) the gradient to maximize (or minimize) the differentiated function. By initializing the gradient to an array of zeros, we ensure that any update accidentally executed before a gradient has actually been calculated will not alter the parameters’ value.

array([0., 0., 0., 0.])

Now let’s calculate \(y\). Because we wish to subsequently calculate gradients, we want MXNet to generate a computational graph on the fly. We could imagine that MXNet would be turning on a recording device to capture the exact path by which each variable is generated.

Note that building the computational graph requires a nontrivial amount of computation. So MXNet will only build the graph when explicitly told to do so. We can invoke this behavior by placing our code inside an autograd.record scope.

with autograd.record():
    y = 2 * np.dot(x, x)

Since x is an ndarray of length 4, np.dot will perform an inner product of x and x, yielding the scalar output that we assign to y. Next, we can automatically calculate the gradient of y with respect to each component of x by calling y’s backward function.


If we recheck the value of x.grad, we will find its contents overwritten by the newly calculated gradient.

array([ 0.,  4.,  8., 12.])

The gradient of the function \(y = 2\mathbf{x}^{\top}\mathbf{x}\) with respect to \(\mathbf{x}\) should be \(4\mathbf{x}\). Let’s quickly verify that our desired gradient was calculated correctly. If the two ndarrays are indeed the same, then the equality between them holds at every position.

x.grad == 4 * x
array([ True,  True,  True,  True])

If we subsequently compute the gradient of another variable whose value was calculated as a function of x, the contents of x.grad will be overwritten.

with autograd.record():
    y = x.sum()
array([1., 1., 1., 1.])

2.5.2. Backward for Non-Scalar Variables

Technically, when y is not a scalar, the most natural interpretation of the gradient of y (a vector of length \(m\)) with respect to x (a vector of length \(n\)) is the Jacobian (an \(m\times n\) matrix). For higher-order and higher-dimensional y and x, the Jacobian could be a gnarly high-order tensor.

However, while these more exotic objects do show up in advanced machine learning (including in deep learning), more often when we are calling backward on a vector, we are trying to calculate the derivatives of the loss functions for each constituent of a batch of training examples. Here, our intent is not to calculate the Jacobian but rather the sum of the partial derivatives computed individually for each example in the batch.

Thus when we invoke backward on a vector-valued variable y, which is a function of x, MXNet assumes that we want the sum of the gradients. In short, MXNet will create a new scalar variable by summing the elements in y, and compute the gradient of that scalar variable with respect to x.

with autograd.record():
    y = x * x  # y is a vector

u = x.copy()
with autograd.record():
    v = (u * u).sum()  # v is a scalar

x.grad == u.grad
array([ True,  True,  True,  True])

2.5.3. Detaching Computation

Sometimes, we wish to move some calculations outside of the recorded computational graph. For example, say that y was calculated as a function of x, and that subsequently z was calculated as a function of both y and x. Now, imagine that we wanted to calculate the gradient of z with respect to x, but wanted for some reason to treat y as a constant, and only take into account the role that x played after y was calculated.

Here, we can call u = y.detach() to return a new variable u that has the same value as y but discards any information about how y was computed in the computational graph. In other words, the gradient will not flow backwards through u to x. This will provide the same functionality as if we had calculated u as a function of x outside of the autograd.record scope, yielding a u that will be treated as a constant in any backward call. Thus, the following backward function computes the partial derivative of z = u * x with respect to x while treating u as a constant, instead of the partial derivative of z = x * x * x with respect to x.

with autograd.record():
    y = x * x
    u = y.detach()
    z = u * x
x.grad == u
array([ True,  True,  True,  True])

Since the computation of y was recorded, we can subsequently call y.backward() to get the derivative of y = x * x with respect to x, which is 2 * x.

x.grad == 2 * x
array([ True,  True,  True,  True])

Note that attaching gradients to a variable x implicitly calls x = x.detach(). If x is computed based on other variables, this part of computation will not be used in the backward function.

y = np.ones(4) * 2
with autograd.record():
    u = x * y
    u.attach_grad()  # Implicitly run u = u.detach()
    z = 5 * u - x
x.grad, u.grad, y.grad
(array([-1., -1., -1., -1.]), array([5., 5., 5., 5.]), array([0., 0., 0., 0.]))

2.5.4. Computing the Gradient of Python Control Flow

One benefit of using automatic differentiation is that even if building the computational graph of a function required passing through a maze of Python control flow (e.g., conditionals, loops, and arbitrary function calls), we can still calculate the gradient of the resulting variable. In the following snippet, note that the number of iterations of the while loop and the evaluation of the if statement both depend on the value of the input a.

def f(a):
    b = a * 2
    while np.linalg.norm(b) < 1000:
        b = b * 2
    if b.sum() > 0:
        c = b
        c = 100 * b
    return c

Again to compute gradients, we just need to record the calculation and then call the backward function.

a = np.random.normal()
with autograd.record():
    d = f(a)

We can now analyze the f function defined above. Note that it is piecewise linear in its input a. In other words, for any a there exists some constant scalar k such that f(a) = k * a, where the value of k depends on the input a. Consequently d / a allows us to verify that the gradient is correct.

a.grad == d / a

2.5.5. Training Mode and Prediction Mode

As we have seen, after we call autograd.record, MXNet logs the operations in the following block. There is one more subtle detail to be aware of. Additionally, autograd.record will change the running mode from prediction mode to training mode. We can verify this behavior by calling the is_training function.

with autograd.record():

When we get to complicated deep learning models, we will encounter some algorithms where the model behaves differently during training and when we subsequently use it to make predictions. We will cover these differences in detail in later chapters.

2.5.6. Summary

  • MXNet provides the autograd package to automate the calculation of derivatives. To use it, we first attach gradients to those variables with respect to which we desire partial derivatives. We then record the computation of our target value, execute its backward function, and access the resulting gradient via our variable’s grad attribute.

  • We can detach gradients to control the part of the computation that will be used in the backward function.

  • The running modes of MXNet include training mode and prediction mode. We can determine the running mode by calling the is_training function.

2.5.7. Exercises

  1. Why is the second derivative much more expensive to compute than the first derivative?

  2. After running y.backward(), immediately run it again and see what happens.

  3. In the control flow example where we calculate the derivative of d with respect to a, what would happen if we changed the variable a to a random vector or matrix. At this point, the result of the calculation f(a) is no longer a scalar. What happens to the result? How do we analyze this?

  4. Redesign an example of finding the gradient of the control flow. Run and analyze the result.

  5. Let \(f(x) = \sin(x)\). Plot \(f(x)\) and \(\frac{df(x)}{dx}\), where the latter is computed without exploiting that \(f'(x) = \cos(x)\).

  6. In a second-price auction (such as in eBay or in computational advertising), the winning bidder pays the second-highest price. Compute the gradient of the final price with respect to the winning bidder’s bid using autograd. What does the result tell you about the mechanism? If you are curious to learn more about second-price auctions, check out the paper by Edelman et al. [Edelman et al., 2007].

2.5.8. Discussions