# Activation function: a hidden pillar of neural networks

In the vast field of artificial intelligence (AI), artificial neural networks play an important role in mimicking the thought processes of the human brain (as we keep repeating in this blog). At the heart of these networks, a fundamental but often overlooked element deserves particular attention: **activation functions**which introduce the non-linearity needed to capture complex relationships between input and output data.

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Activation functions are particularly important in artificial intelligence, as they enable models to **classification models** to better learn and generalize from data.

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This essential component enables Machine Learning models to capture and represent complex relationships between data. This facilitates learning and decision-making. The use of **labeled data** for training neural networks in Deep Learning is particularly effective.

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π‘ By transforming raw signals into usable information,activation functions are the real engine that enables neural networks to solve a variety of problems, from image recognition to machine translation. Understanding how they work and their importance is therefore essential for anyone wishing to immerse themselves in the world of AI.

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## What is an activation function?

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An activation function is a fundamental component of artificial neural networks, used to introduce non-linearity into the model. In simple terms, it transforms the incoming signals from a neuron to determine whether that neuron should be activated or not, i.e. whether it should transmit information to subsequent neurons.

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In a neural network, the raw signals, or input data, are weighted and accumulated in each neuron. The activation function takes this accumulation and transforms it into a usable output. The term 'activation potential' comes from the biological equivalent and represents the stimulation threshold that triggers a neuron response. This concept is important in artificial neural networks, as it enables us to determine when a neuron should be activated, based on the weighted sum of inputs.

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Without activation functions, the model would simply be a linear combination of inputs, incapable of solving complex problems. By introducing non-linearity, activation functions enable the neural network to model complex relationships and learn abstract representations of data.

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There are several types of activation functions, each with specific characteristics and applications, such as the **Sigmoid**function, the **Tanh** (Hyperbolic Tangent) function and the **ReLU** (Rectified Linear Unit) function. These functions are chosen according to the specific needs of the model and the data it is working with.

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## Why are activation functions essential in neural networks?

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Activation functions are essential in neural networks for several fundamental reasons: they have a major impact on the performance, convergence speed and ability of neural networks to capture complex patterns and make accurate predictions. They transform input data into usable results, which is necessary to obtain reliable predictions in line with model expectations.

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**Introduction of non-linearity**

Activation functions introduce non-linearity into the model. Without them, a neural network could only perform linear transformations of input data. Non-linearity is crucial for learning and representing complex relationships between input and output variables, enabling the model to capture complex patterns and structures in the data.

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**Ability to learn complex functions**

Thanks to activation functions, neural networks can learn complex, non-linear functions. This is essential for tasks such as image recognition, natural language understanding and time series prediction, where the relationships between variables are not simply linear.

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**Neuron activation decision**

Activation functions determine whether or not a neuron should be activated according to the signals it receives. This decision is based on a transformation of the neuron's weighted inputs. This enables neural networks to propagate important information while filtering out less relevant signals.

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**Hierarchical learning**

By introducing non-linearities, activation functions enable deep neural networks to learn hierarchical representations of data. Each layer of the network can learn to detect increasingly abstract features, enabling better understanding and generalization from raw data.

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**Preventing signal saturation**

Some activation functions, such as ReLU (Rectified Linear Unit), help prevent signal saturation, a problem where gradients become too small for efficient learning. By preventing saturation, these activation functions ensure that the network can continue to learn and adjust efficiently during the backpropagation process.

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**Learning stability**

Activation functions influence the stability and speed of learning. For example, ReLU functions and their variants tend to speed up deep network learning by reducing gradient vanishing problems.

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## What are the different types of activation functions?

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There are several types of activation functions, each with specific characteristics and applications. Here are the most commonly used:

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*Sigmoid* function

The Sigmoid function is one of the oldest and most widely used activation functions. Its formula, producing an output in the range (0, 1), is :

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Its "S"-shaped curve is smooth and continuous, allowing values to be processed smoothly. The Sigmoid function is particularly useful for output layers in binary classification models, as it transforms inputs into probabilities. It is crucial to understand and correctly interpret the results produced by the Sigmoid function in the context of classification and probability prediction.

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However, it has its drawbacks, notably the "vanishing gradient" problem where gradients become very small for high or very low input values, slowing down learning in deep networks.

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### Tanh function*(Hyperbolic tangent*)

The Tanh function, or hyperbolic tangent, is defined by the formula :

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It produces an output in the range (-1, 1) and its "S"-shaped curve is centered on the origin. The Tanh function is often used in recurrent neural networks and can perform better than the Sigmoid, as its outputs are centered around zero, which can help convergence during training. However, it can also suffer from the "vanishing gradient" problem.

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### ReLU*(Rectified Linear Unit)* function

The ReLU function, or rectified linear unit, is defined by :

`f(x)=max(0,x)`

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It is simple and efficient (in terms of computational capacity required), effectively introducing non-linearity into the network. ReLU produces an unbounded output in the positive, making it easy to learn complex representations.

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However, it can suffer from the problem of "dead neurons", where certain neurons stop activating and no longer contribute to learning, due to constantly negative input values.

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*Leaky* ReLU function

The Leaky ReLU function is a variant of ReLU that seeks to solve the problem of "dead neurons". Its formula is :

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**Ξ± is a small constant, often 0.01.*

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This small slope for negative values allows neurons to continue learning even when inputs are negative, thus avoiding neuron death.

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### Parametric ReLU (PReLU) function

Parametric ReLU is another variant of ReLU, with a formula similar to Leaky ReLU, but where Ξ± is a parameter learned during training. This added flexibility allows the network to better adapt to the data and improve learning performance.

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### Softmax function

The *Softmax* function is mainly used in output layers for multi-class classification tasks. Its formula is :

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It transforms output values into probabilities, each value being between 0 and 1 and the sum of all outputs being equal to 1. This allows us to determine the class to which a given input belongs with a certain degree of certainty.

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### Swish function

Proposed by Google, the Swish function is defined by :

`f(x)=xβ
Ο(x), oΓΉ Ο(x) is the function sigmoΓ―of. `

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Swish introduces a slight non-linearity while maintaining favorable learning properties. It often outperforms ReLU in certain deep networks, offering a compromise between linearity and nonlinearity.

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### ELU*(Exponential Linear Unit)* function

The ELU function, or linear exponential unit, is defined by :

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Like ReLU, ELU introduces nonlinearity, but with exponential negative values. This helps to improve model convergence by maintaining negative values, which can reduce bias and improve learning stability.

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Each of these activation functions has its own advantages and disadvantages. The choice of the appropriate function often depends on the specific problem to be solved and the nature of the data used.

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## What are the practical applications of the various activation functions?

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The different activation functions in neural networks have a variety of practical applications, adapted to different types of problems and model architectures. Here are a few examples of practical applications for each of the main activation functions:

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**Sigmoid**

**Binary classification:**Used as the last layer to produce probabilities (between 0 and 1) indicating the predictive class.**Object detection**Can**be**used to predict the probability of an object's presence in a region of interest.**Text recognition:**Used to estimate the probability of occurrence of a specific word or entity.

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**Tanh***(Hyperbolic tangent*)

*(Hyperbolic tangent*)

**Traditional neural networks:**often used in hidden layers to introduce non-linearity and normalize input values between -1 and 1.**Speech recognition:**Used to classify phonemes and words in speech recognition systems.**Signal processing:**Applied to the segmentation and classification of signals in medicine or telecommunications.

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**ReLU***(Rectified Linear Unit*)

*(Rectified Linear Unit*)

**Convolutional neural networks****(CNN**): Very popular in hidden layer CNNs for extracting visual features in computer vision.**Object detection:**Used for robust feature extraction and computation time reduction in object detection models.**Natural language analysis:**Used for text classification and sentiment modeling due to its simplicity and performance.

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**Leaky ReLU**

**Deep neural networks:**Used to alleviate the "dead neuron" problem associated with ReLU, thus improving learning robustness and stability.**Image generation:**Used in image generation models to maintain a more stable and diverse distribution of generated samples.**Time series prediction:**Used to model trends and variations in time series data, thanks to its ability to handle negative inputs.

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**ELU***(Exponential Linear Unit*)

*(Exponential Linear Unit*)

**Deep neural networks:**Used as an alternative to ReLU for faster, more stable convergence when training deep networks.**Natural language processing**Natural language processing**:**Applied in language processing models for semantic analysis and text generation because of its ability to maintain stable gradients.**Time series prediction:**Used to capture trends and non-linear relationships in time series data, with improved performance over other functions.

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**Softmax**

**Multi-class classification:**Used as a final layer to normalize output to probabilities over several classes, often used in classification networks.**Recommendation models:**Used to evaluate and rank user preferences in recommendation systems.**Sentiment analysis****Used**to predict and classify sentiment from online text, such as product reviews or social comments.

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**PReLU***(Parametric Rectified Linear Unit*)

*(Parametric Rectified Linear Unit*)

**Deep neural networks:**Used as an alternative to ReLU to alleviate the "dead neuron" problem by allowing a slight negative slope for negative inputs, thus improving model robustness.**Object detection:**Used to extract robust features and improve the accuracy of object detection models in computer vision.**Natural language processing:**Used in recurrent neural networks to model long-term dependencies and improve the accuracy of text predictions.

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**Swish**

**Deep neural networks:**Recognized for its efficiency and performance in deep networks, amplifying positive signals and improving non-linearity.**Image classification:**Used for image classification and object recognition in convolutional neural networks, often improving performance over ReLU.**Time series modeling:**Applied to capture complex, non-linear relationships in time series data, enabling better prediction and improved generalization.

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By choosing wisely among these activation functions according to problem type and data characteristics, practitioners can optimize the performance of their Deep Learning models while minimizing the risk of overfitting and improving the ability to generalize to unseen data.

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Each activation function brings specific advantages that can be exploited to meet the diverse requirements of real-life applications.

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## How do you choose the right activation function for a given model?

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Choosing the appropriate activation function for a given model is a critical decision that can significantly influence the performance and learning capacity of the neural network. Several factors must be taken into account when making this choice:

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**Nature of the problem**

The first consideration is the nature of the problem to be solved. Each type of problem (classification, regression, etc.) may require a specific activation function for optimal results. For example:

**Binary classification**: The Sigmoid function is often used as an output to produce probabilities between 0 and 1.**Multi-class classification**: The Softmax function is preferred for normalizing output to probabilities over several classes.**Regression**: Sometimes, no activation function is used at the output to allow unbounded output values.

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**Properties of activation functions**

Each activation function has its own properties:

**Sigmoid**: This is gentle and produces output in the range (0, 1), often used for tasks requiring probabilities.**Tanh**: Similar to Sigmoid, but produces output in the range (-1, 1), often used in hidden layers for tasks where data is centered around zero.**ReLU (Rectified Linear Unit)**: It's simple, quick to calculate, and avoids the problem of vanishing gradient, often used in deep networks to improve convergence.**ReLU variants (Leaky ReLU, PReLU)**: These are designed to alleviate the "dead neuron" problems associated with ReLU by allowing gradient flow even for negative values.**ELU (Exponential Linear Unit)**: It introduces a slight non-linearity and maintains negative values, improving model convergence.

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**Network architecture**

The depth and architecture of the neural network also influence the choice of activation function:

- For deep networks, ReLU and its variants are often preferred for their ability to efficiently handle gradients in deep layers.
- For recurrent networks (RNN) or LSTMs, functions such as Tanh or ReLU variants may be more appropriate due to their specific characteristics.

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**Performance, convergence, experimentation and validation**

Calculation speed and convergence stability are important practical considerations. ReLU is generally preferred for its speed and simplicity, while functions like ELU are chosen for their better convergence stability in certain configurations.

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In practice, it is often necessary to experiment with different activation functions and evaluate them using techniques such as cross-validation to determine which maximizes model performance on the specific data.

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## What role do activation functions play in preventing*overfitting*?

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Activation functions play an important role in preventing*overfitting* in Deep Learning models. Here are several ways in which they contribute to this process:

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**Introduction of non-linearity and complexity**

Activation functions introduce non-linearity into the model, enabling the neural network to capture complex, non-linear relationships between input variables and outputs. This enables the model to generalize better to unseen data, reducing the risk of over-fitting to specific training examples.

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**Natural regulation**

Some activation functions, such as ReLU and its variants, have properties that act naturally as regulators to prevent over-adaptation:

**ReLU**(Rectified Linear Unit) ignores negative values, which can make the model more robust by limiting neuron activation to specific patterns present in the training data.**Leaky ReLU**and**ELU**(Exponential Linear Unit) allow non-zero activation even for negative values, thus avoiding complete neuron inactivation and enabling better adaptation to data variations.

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**Preventing "dead neurons**

Dead neurons", where a neuron ceases to contribute to learning because it is never activated, can lead to over-fitting by not correctly capturing the nuances of the data. ReLU variants, such as Leaky ReLU and ELU, are designed to prevent this phenomenon by maintaining some activity even for negative input values, thus improving the model's ability to generalize.

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**Convergence stabilization**

Well-chosen activation functions can contribute to a more stable convergence of the model during training. More stable convergence reduces the likelihood of the model overlearning not only the training data, but also noise or artifacts specific to the training set.

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**Problem- and data-driven selection**

The choice of activation function must be adapted to the type of problem and the characteristics of the data:

- For tasks where more complex representations are required, functions like Tanh or ELU may be preferred for their ability to maintain stable gradients and model more subtle patterns.
- For convolutional neural networks used in computer vision, ReLU is often chosen for its simplicity and efficiency.

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## Conclusion

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In conclusion, activation functions play an essential, multifaceted role in deep neural networks, significantly impacting their ability to learn and generalize from data. Each function, whether Sigmoid, Tanh, ReLU, Leaky ReLU, ELU, PReLU, Swish or Softmax, offers unique properties that make it more suited to certain types of problem and data. The right choice of activation function is crucial to optimize model performance while preventing problems such as overfitting or missing gradients.

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The practical applications of these functions are vast and varied, covering fields ranging from computer vision and speech recognition to natural language processing and time series prediction. Each choice of activation function must be motivated by a thorough understanding of the specific problem to be solved and the characteristics of the data involved.

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Finally, the ongoing evolution of neural network architectures and the challenges posed by complex data require continuous exploration and adaptation of activation function choices. This remains an active area of research, aimed at developing new activation functions and improving the performance of Deep Learning models in a variety of real-world applications.