Recurrent Neural Network library for Torch7's nn
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rnn: recurrent neural networks

This is a Recurrent Neural Network library that extends Torch's nn. You can use it to build RNNs, LSTMs, BRNNs, BLSTMs, and so forth and so on. This library includes documentation for the following objects:

  • AbstractRecurrent : an abstract class inherited by Recurrent and LSTM;
  • Recurrent : a generalized recurrent neural network container;
  • LSTM : a vanilla Long-Short Term Memory module;
  • Sequencer : applies an encapsulated module to all elements in an input sequence;
  • Repeater : repeatedly applies the same input to an AbstractRecurrent instance;
  • SequencerCriterion : sequentially applies the same criterion to a sequence of inputs and targets;
  • RepeaterCriterion : repeatedly applies the same criterion with the same target on a sequence;


An abstract class inherited by Recurrent and LSTM. The constructor takes a single argument :

rnn = nn.AbstractRecurrent(rho)

Argument rho is the maximum number of steps to backpropagate through time (BPTT). Sub-classes can set this to a large number like 99999 if they want to backpropagate through the entire sequence whatever its length. Setting lower values of rho are useful when long sequences are forward propagated, but we only whish to backpropagate through the last rho steps, which means that the remainder of the sequence doesn't need to be stored (so no additional cost).

[recurrentModule] getStepModule(step)

Returns a module for time-step step. This is used internally by sub-classes to obtain copies of the internal recurrentModule. These copies share parameters and gradParameters but each have their own output, gradInput and any other intermediate states.

[output] updateOutput(input)

Forward propagates the input for the current step. The outputs or intermediate states of the previous steps are used recurrently. This is transparent to the caller as the previous outputs and intermediate states are memorized. This method also increments the step attribute by 1.

updateGradInput(input, gradOutput)

It is important to understand that the actual BPTT happens in the updateParameters, backwardThroughTime or backwardUpdateThroughTime methods. So this method just keeps a copy of the gradOutput. These are stored in a table in the order that they were provided.

accGradParameters(input, gradOutput, scale)

Again, the actual BPTT happens in the updateParameters, backwardThroughTime or backwardUpdateThroughTime methods. So this method just keeps a copy of the scales for later.


This method calls updateGradInputThroughTime followed by accGradParametersThroughTime. This is where the actual BPTT happens.


Iteratively calls updateGradInput for all time-steps in reverse order (from the end to the start of the sequence). Returns the gradInput of the first time-step.


Iteratively calls accGradParameters for all time-steps in reverse order (from the end to the start of the sequence).


Iteratively calls accUpdateGradParameters for all time-steps in reverse order (from the end to the start of the sequence).


This method calls updateGradInputThroughTime and accUpdateGradParametersThroughTime(learningRate) and returns the gradInput of the first step.


Unless backwardThroughTime or accGradParameters where called since the last call to updateOutput, backwardUpdateThroughTime is called. Otherwise, it calls updateParameters on all encapsulated Modules.


This method goes hand in hand with forget. It is useful when the current time-step is greater than rho, at which point it starts recycling the oldest recurrentModule sharedClones, such that they can be reused for storing the next step. This offset is used for modules like nn.Recurrent that use a different module for the first step. Default offset is 0.


This method brings back all states to the start of the sequence buffers, i.e. it forgets the current sequence. It also resets the step attribute to 1. It is highly recommended to call forget after each parameter update. Otherwise, the previous state will be used to activate the next, which will often lead to instability. This is caused by the previous state being the result of now changed parameters. It is also good practice to call forget at the start of each new sequence.


In training mode, the network remembers all previous rho (number of time-steps) states. This is necessary for BPTT.


During evaluation, since their is no need to perform BPTT at a later time, only the previous step is remembered. This is very efficient memory-wise, such that evaluation can be performed using potentially infinite-length sequence.


References :

A composite Module for implementing Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN), excluding the output layer.

The nn.Recurrent(start, input, feedback, [transfer, rho, merge]) constructor takes 5 arguments:

  • start : the size of the output (excluding the batch dimension), or a Module that will be inserted between the input Module and transfer module during the first step of the propagation. When start is a size (a number or torch.LongTensor), then this start Module will be initialized as nn.Add(start) (see Ref. A).
  • input : a Module that processes input Tensors (or Tables). Output must be of same size as start (or its output in the case of a start Module), and same size as the output of the feedback Module.
  • feedback : a Module that feedbacks the previous output Tensor (or Tables) up to the transfer Module.
  • transfer : a non-linear Module used to process the element-wise sum of the input and feedback module outputs, or in the case of the first step, the output of the start Module.
  • rho : the maximum amount of backpropagation steps to take back in time. Limits the number of previous steps kept in memory. Due to the vanishing gradients effect, references A and B recommend rho = 5 (or lower). Defaults to 5.
  • merge : a table Module that merges the outputs of the input and feedback Module before being forwarded through the transfer Module.

An RNN is used to process a sequence of inputs. Each step in the sequence should be propagated by its own forward (and backward), one input (and gradOutput) at a time. Each call to forward keeps a log of the intermediate states (the input and many Module.outputs) and increments the step attribute by 1. A call to backward doesn't result in a gradInput. It only keeps a log of the current gradOutput and scale. Back-Propagation Through Time (BPTT) is done when the updateParameters or backwardThroughTime method is called. The step attribute is only reset to 1 when a call to the forget method is made. In which case, the Module is ready to process the next sequence (or batch thereof). Note that the longer the sequence, the more memory will be required to store all the output and gradInput states (one for each time step).

To use this module with batches, we suggest using different sequences of the same size within a batch and calling updateParameters every rho steps and forget at the end of the Sequence.

Note that calling the evaluate method turns off long-term memory; the RNN will only remember the previous output. This allows the RNN to handle long sequences without allocating any additional memory.

Example :

require 'rnn'

batchSize = 8
rho = 5
hiddenSize = 10
nIndex = 10000
-- RNN
r = nn.Recurrent(
   hiddenSize, nn.LookupTable(nIndex, hiddenSize), 
   nn.Linear(hiddenSize, hiddenSize), nn.Sigmoid(), 

rnn = nn.Sequential()
rnn:add(nn.Linear(hiddenSize, nIndex))

criterion = nn.ClassNLLCriterion()

-- dummy dataset (task is to predict next item, given previous)
sequence = torch.randperm(nIndex)

offsets = {}
for i=1,batchSize do
   table.insert(offsets, math.ceil(math.random()*batchSize))
offsets = torch.LongTensor(offsets)

lr = 0.1
updateInterval = 4
i = 1
while true do
   -- a batch of inputs
   local input = sequence:index(1, offsets)
   local output = rnn:forward(input)
   -- incement indices
   for j=1,batchSize do
      if offsets[j] > nIndex then
         offsets[j] = 1
   local target = sequence:index(1, offsets)
   local err = criterion:forward(output, target)
   local gradOutput = criterion:backward(output, target)
   -- the Recurrent layer is memorizing its gradOutputs (up to memSize)
   rnn:backward(input, gradOutput)
   i = i + 1
   -- note that updateInterval < rho
   if i % updateInterval == 0 then
      -- backpropagates through time (BPTT) :
      -- 1. backward through feedback and input layers,
      -- 2. updates parameters

Note that nn.Recurrent can be decorated with a nn.Sequencer such that an entire sequence (a table) can be presented with a single forward/backward call.


References :

This is an implementation of a vanilla Long-Short Term Memory module. We used Ref. A's LSTM as a blueprint for this module as it was the most concise. Yet it is also the vanilla LSTM described in Ref. C.

The nn.LSTM(inputSize, outputSize, [rho]) constructor takes 3 arguments:

  • inputSize : a number specifying the size of the input;
  • outputSize : a number specifying the size of the output;
  • rho : the maximum amount of backpropagation steps to take back in time. Limits the number of previous steps kept in memory. Defaults to 9999.


The actual implementation corresponds to the following algorithm:

i[t] = σ(W[x->i]x[t] + W[h->i]h[t−1] + W[c->i]c[t−1] + b[1->i])      (1)
f[t] = σ(W[x->f]x[t] + W[h->f]h[t−1] + W[c->f]c[t−1] + b[1->f])      (2)
z[t] = tanh(W[x->c]x[t] + W[h->c]h[t−1] + b[1->c])                   (3)
c[t] = f[t]c[t−1] + i[t]z(t)                                         (4)
o[t] = σ(W[x->o]x[t] + W[h->o]h[t−1] + W[c->o]c[t] + b[1->o])        (5)
h[t] = o[t]tanh(c[t])                                                (6)

where W[s->q] is the weight matrix from s to q, t indexes the time-step, b[1->q] are the biases leading into q, σ() is Sigmoid, x[t] is the input, i[t] is the input gate (eq. 1), f[t] is the forget gate (eq. 2), z[t] is the input to the cell (which we call the hidden) (eq. 3), c[t] is the cell (eq. 4), o[t] is the output gate (eq. 5), and h[t] is the output of this module (eq. 6). Also note that the weight matrices from cell to gate vectors are diagonal W[c->s], where s is i,f, or o.

As you can see, unlike Recurrent, this implementation isn't generic enough that it can take arbitrary component Module definitions at construction. However, the LSTM module can easily be adapted through inheritance by overriding the different factory methods :

  • buildGate : builds generic gate that is used to implement the input, forget and output gates;
  • buildInputGate : builds the input gate (eq. 1). Currently calls buildGate;
  • buildForgetGate : builds the forget gate (eq. 2). Currently calls buildGate;
  • buildHidden : builds the hidden (eq. 3);
  • buildCell : builds the cell (eq. 4);
  • buildOutputGate : builds the output gate (eq. 5). Currently calls buildGate;
  • buildModel : builds the actual LSTM model which is used internally (eq. 6).


The nn.Sequencer(module) constructor takes a single argument, module, which is the module to be applied from left to right, on each element of the input sequence.

seq = nn.Sequencer(module)

This Module is a kind of decorator used to abstract away the intricacies of AbstractRecurrent modules. While the latter require a sequence to be presented one input at a time, each with its own call to forward (and backward), the Sequencer forwards an input sequence (a table) into an output sequence (a table of the same length). It also takes care of calling forget, backwardThroughTime and other such AbstractRecurrent-specific methods.

For example, rnn : an instance of nn.AbstractRecurrent, can forward an input sequence one forward at a time:

input = {torch.randn(3,4), torch.randn(3,4), torch.randn(3,4)}

Equivalently, we can use a Sequencer to forward the entire input sequence at once:

seq = nn.Sequencer(rnn)

The Sequencer can also take non-recurrent Modules (i.e. non-AbstractRecurrent instances) and apply it to each input to produce an output table of the same length. This is especially useful for processing variable length sequences (tables).

Note that for now, it is only possible to decorate either recurrent or non-recurrent Modules. Specifically, it cannot handle non-recurrent Modules containing recurrent Modules. Instead, either Modules should be encapsulated by its own Sequencer. This may change in the future.


When r=true (the default), the Sequencer will not call forget at the start of each call to forward, which is the default behavior of the class. This behavior is only applicable to decorated AbstractRecurrent modules.


Calls the decorated AbstractRecurrent module's forget method.


This Module is a decorator similar to [Sequencer]. It differs in that the sequence length is fixed before hand and the input is repeatedly forwarded through the wrapped module to produce an output table of length nStep:

r = nn.Repeater(module, nStep)

Argument module should be an AbstractRecurrent instance. This is useful for implementing models like RCNNs, which are repeatedly presented with the same input.


This Criterion is a decorator:

c = nn.SequencerCriterion(criterion)

Both the input and target are expected to be a sequence (a table). For each step in the sequence, the corresponding elements of the input and target tables will be applied to the criterion. The output of forward is the sum of all individual losses in the sequence. This is useful when used in conjuction with a Sequencer.


This Criterion is a decorator:

c = nn.RepeaterCriterion(criterion)

The input is expected to be a sequence (a table). A single target is repeatedly applied using the same criterion to each element in the input sequence. The output of forward is the sum of all individual losses in the sequence. This is useful for implementing models like RCNNs, which are repeatedly presented with the same target.