Crossposted from the AI Alignment Forum. May contain more technical jargon than usual.


This post is strongly based on this paper, which it calls the LRP algorithm,  [1]

I later learned of the existence of this paper, which is even more similar to the ideas discussed here.  [2]

In it, I examine 2 of the methods for neural network visualization, and show that they have structural similarities. I show that these algorithms only differ by a difference in how they treat the biases, and (possibly a difference in getting started) 

The second algorithm obeys conservation laws, it tries to parcel credit and blame for a decision up to the input neurons. 



The task we want is to assign importance to different inputs of a neural network in production of an output. So for example, in the case of a trained image classifier, the visualization method would take in a particular image, and highlight the parts of the image that the network thought were important. 

A general method for visualizing neural networks is back-propagation. First evaluate the network forwards. Then work backwards through the network by using some rule about how to reverse each individual layer. 

One example of this is differentiation. Finding the rate of change of the output, with respect to each input. But there are others.

Firstly, lets pretend biases in the network don't exist. We are allowed non-linearities, so long as they satisfy the equation  . 

Lets look at various layer types and the different back-propagation rules. 


Most often found in the form of max pooling.


The rule used in gradient descent, and I think the only rule used in the paper above for back propagating maximum. (Notation note.  here isn't exactly a function. Its more like   , its output is related to the context in which the input occurs. Think of every number in the forward net having an associated number )

Ignoring the case of an exact tie. Exact ties, and what to do on that kind of singular point will be ignored in general, because they are fiddly and unimportant.


Treats 0 as a special point. 

Where the plot above shows  and the  are non-negitive and sum to 1.

Case.  . Relative to 0, a negative value contributes nothing to a positive maximum. 

Case,  (In particular  if  is the only value with positive  

Case all negative.  . 

Matrix multiplication

A common operation in neural networks. Even convolutions can be expressed as a matrix multiplication. The matrix just happens to be sparse, and contain repetitions. 


Yet again a popular choice.


What the LRP algorithm uses is

(This is deduced from equation 6 in [1] )

Where blip is this function

A straight line of gradient 1, except for a little vertical jump to avoid 0.

Why are they using this blip? Because they want to divide by  here to get an interesting theoretical property (conservation of total) but if they don't add this little jump, they get numerical instability caused by dividing by something too close to 0. 


There are several mechanisms proposed to deal with an arbitrary potentially non-linear function , applied elementwise. We will impose the condition   f(0)=0 for now. 


Very simple 


 standard rule of calculus.



Downside: Is nonlinear in , unlike every other method here.

Consistency rules

You can't just pick any option from each of these lists. Well you could.  But there are some nice mathematical consistency properties it would be nice to have.

Scaling equivalence

Suppose you want to multiply all values in the network by a constant  , there are 2 ways you could do this. You could see the constant as a scaled identity matrix, and use the matrix multiplication rules. Or you could see the constant multiplication as a special case of the arbitrary elementwise function. 

Matrix RuleNonlinearity RuleScale





The other condition we might reasonably impose is  that the nonlinearity formed by taking the maximum with a set of constants is treated the same way by the nonlinearity and maximum rules.  Actually the constants must all be  because of the  condition.

Gradient matches gradient. (Unsurprising)

In general its very hard to get anything else to work because  which ruins most kinds of credit splitting. Still, I suspect that radial maximum matches slope nonlinearity in the special case of a maximum of 2 objects. (Based on visually similar graphs.)

The Algorithms in [1]

The paper mentions gradients as existing work.

It also mentions work on the  Deconvolution Method by Zeiler and Fergus, (2014) that roughly amounts to.

Layer typeBack propagation rule used
Matrix MultiplyGradient
NonlinearityRepeat [3]

The LRP Algorithm by (Bach et al., 2015) has this form. 

Layer typeBack propagation rule used
Matrix MultiplyNormalized[4]

Simplifying the LRP

Firstly let  in the Normalized matrix multiply backpropagation rule.

Let  be the backpropagation rule based on the table above. (Gradient Maximum, Normalized Matrix Multiply, Ignore Nonlinearity)

As the authors of [1] show, these rules conserve  across network layers. 

Consider another measure of the importance of a node  . Can we rephrase all the equations to be in terms of  instead?

Rephrasing Maximum

So this transformation turns the gradient maximum rule into the gradient maximum rule.

Rephrasing Matrix Multiplication

The  rule means .

So this transformation turns the fancy normalization rule into the gradient again. All the problems where division means a risk of divide by 0, or more realistically dividing by almost 0 and getting a crazy huge number, have vanished.

Rephrasing Nonlinearity

Here is the place it gets a little more complicated.

Under rephrasing, the trivial Ignore rule turns into the nontrivial slope rule.

Layer typeIn terms of In terms of 
Matrix MultiplyNormalizedGradient

This slope rule works well so long as . I mean technically there are lots of fiddly analysis details here. Lets just say.  is continuous, and that 

But if you haven't done real analysis, all you really need to know is that there are lots of slightly different definitions of reasonably nice functions, and so long as  and there is nothing like the sharp cusp of a square-root going on at 0, the result is nice enough.

Also note that Slope and Gradient are the same method if the only nonlinearity used is Relu. 

So all that is left is to deal with the biases.

Rephrasing conservation

This is simple.  is now the conserved quantity.

End conditions

In order to make these whole procedures exactly the same, we need to make sure the end conditions match too. At the start of the forward process, where backpropagation ends, you can just multiply  by .  At the end of the forward process, where backpropagation starts, you can divide. The work by Bach et al started the reverse process using the output of the network, which was considered to be a positive scalar representing the likelihood assigned by the network to some particular classification. 

This means that the reformulated version, the backpropagation is started with 

What the actual problem was

Sometimes in a neural net, some fragment of decision comes down to a bias.

Sometimes the answer to "why is this number so large" would almost entirely be a large bias. The method bach et al proposed would focus on the tiny inputs or tiny weights rescaling them up in an attempt to explain the value. 

This produces numerical instability by scaling up negligibly tiny weights and inputs. Which is exactly why bach et al added the blip function.

Solution 1: Blame the Bias

Augment the input data of the network with a list of 1's with the number of 1's equalling the number of biases used in the network. (Here a nonlinearity with  can be considered to have a bias added to it.)  These propagate through the network unaffected until each 1 is used up by scaling it by its corresponding bias, and adding it to where the bias should go. 

You have now converted a network with biases into a network without biases. This means the techniques I propose work fine without numerical instability. 

However, when propagating relevance backwards, some of that relevance goes to the list of 1's that correspond to the biases. So you get a heatmap of the relevant parts of the image. But also extra data about the relevance of various biases.

Instead of using lots of distinct 1's, you could use a single 1 everywhere. This would just add up the relevances of all individual nodes into a  single total relevance.

Solution 2: Compare to baseline

This solution involves picking some "baseline" input. This could be an all blank image, or the average over the whole dataset. Run this through the network as well as the image you want to analyze. This gives  from the image, and  from the baseline. We can now define the nonlinearity step as 


This is symmetric in the 2 images.


There are several different approaches to taking the maximum. One approach is to consider , the softmax function with softness . This function can be composed of the basic building blocks described above. So the relevancy can be calculated for any fixed . Then just take the limit 

Another way of computing the maximum is to use . Unfortunately these 2 computations suggest different relevancies.


Running code.

If you want to play around with this, look here. Unzip and point the link in My_Net_explain2.ipynb to the right location.

What I was hoping for regarding alignment

There is an old apocryphal story about someone training neural networks to distinguish dogs from wolves, and all the dogs being on grass, and all the wolves being on snow, so the network learned to distinguish grass from snow instead. 

So suppose you have carefully highlighted all the dogs and wolves in the training data. But you won't have that extra data at run time. My idea was to optimize the net to make sure that the region of the image containing the animal was marked relevant. (The whole relevancy calculation is differentiable, so can be optimized during training)  The end result of this training procedure should be a single perfectly normal neural net that can be shown a wolf on grass  for the first time, and correctly classify it. 

Unfortunately I haven't got this to work. All I got was the network rampantly goodhearting the relevancy metric. (Well I was trying this on a smaller MNIST based problem, but it was conceptually the same) 



  1. ^

    Evaluating the visualization of what a
    Deep Neural Network has learned
    Wojciech Samek Member, IEEE, Alexander Binder, Gr ́egoire Montavon, Sebastian Bach, and Klaus-Robert

  2. ^

    Learning Important Features Through Propagating Activation Differences
    Avanti Shrikumar  Peyton Greenside Anshul Kundaje

  3. ^

    Relu only, other nonlinearities are not considered in this work.

  4. ^

    Later in the paper they propose another option here. This other option will not be discussed further.

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It seems like the 5th sentence has its ending cut off? "it tries to parcel credit and blame for a decision up to the input neurons, even when credit and blame" , seems like it should continue [do/are x] for some x.