Proceedings of STeP'96. Jarmo Alander, Timo Honkela and Matti Jakobsson (eds.),
Publications of the Finnish Artificial Intelligence Society, pp. 115-121.

Structural Optimization of Feedforward Networks

Heikki Hyötyniemi
Helsinki University of Technology
Control Engineering Laboratory
Otakaari 5A, FIN-02150 Espoo, Finland


Optimizing the structure of a feedforward neural network is studied actively, and many (more or less heuristic) approaches have been proposed. This paper shows that the age-old methods based on linear programming can be applied to reach fast and reliable results.

A PostScript version of this paper is available also at

1 Introduction

The perceptron-type neurons and networks are typically adapted using iterative methods. An input that has negligible effect on the output, still has a non-zero weight, meaning that the corresponding nodes need to be connected. The resulting network structure is fully connected. However, there often exist structural dependencies between specific inputs and outputs, and these dependencies should be utilized to find a structurally better motivated connections.

For example, `learning a concept', as presented in [2], can be interpreted as successive application of one layer perceptrons. At least in this application, `qualitative' rather than `quantitative' perceptron weight optimization methods are needed---otherwise, the classification results become more or less `blurred'.

As an alternative to traditional optimization methods, Genetic Algorithms (GA) have been proposed (for example, see [3]). This approach makes it possible to optimize the network structure, because no continuity properties are required. However, GA's are very inefficient, and the optimality of the result cannot be proven.

It turns out that when the problem setting is written in an appropriate form, an optimization algorithm for finding a pruned network structure can be formulated that solves both of the above problems: the algorithm is fast and its convergence can be proven.

Even if the discussion of perceptron networks with non-differentiable nonlinearities is not regarded as mainstream neural networks research, it may be useful to see how simply some difficult-looking things actually can be done when the problems are studied closer.

1.1 Classification using perceptrons

Assume that, given inputs , , the outputs should be , . If the output values are binary, this task can be called classification. Perceptron networks are traditionally used for this kind of classification tasks. The input--output function of a perceptron number j can be characterized as

where are the weight parameters and denotes the bias (see Fig. 1). The activation function determines the actual output value of the perceptron. Defining a vector-valued function , behaving elementwise as the previous scalar function, and introducing the weight matrix W and the bias vector U, the operation of a set of perceptrons can be expressed in a matrix form as


Figure 1:   The model for the perceptron number j

1.2 Linear programming

Assume that a parameter vector should be found so that a linear cost criterion would be optimized, subject to linear constraints:


The above problem can be solved by applying the so called Simplex algorithm (for example, see [4]). It can be shown that this algorithm always terminates after a finite number of steps, and usually the operation of the algorithm is very efficient. Systems with thousands of variables are commonplace.

The linear constraints in (2) are hyperplanes in a high-dimensional space, together defining a `hyperhedron'. The operation of the algorithm can be described as a process where one traverses from a vertex to another until the minimum of the objective function is reached. In practice, it often turns out that variables are only utilized if their introduction is unavoidable. This property of the algorithm facilitates different kinds of structural optimization schemes.

Next it is shown how the perceptron network optimization problem can be converted into this linear programming framework.

2 Optimizing a perceptron network

First, assume that the perceptron is linear, that means, . If the correct classification at time t is , given inputs , where , one can construct constraint equations for each j,t pair as follows:

Because the parameters and can be positive or negative, additional variables need to be introduced to match the non-negativity restriction of (2): the parameters are now expressed as and , so that

The above set of constraints is valid if the operation of the perceptron is linear. Now assume that the nonlinearity in the nodes is defined as saturation


The limit values could be 1 and 0 just as well, without essentially changing the following derivations. If the value of should be on the upper limit, the corresponding constraint is modified as

and if should be on the lower limit,


If the network is to be applied to classification tasks, only the two extreme values for are possible. If the intermediate values are also possible, the Simplex problem can again be formulated (see [2]).

Introducing the `slack variables' and , the constraint equations become


respectively. The reason to introduce the variables is to facilitate the `big M' technique in optimization---if these variables are emphasized in the cost criterion, the search for the feasible solution can be combined with the optimization.

In addition to weighting the variables in the optimality criterion, the parameters and as well as and also need to be weighted. This means that there will be two simultaneous optimization processes going on: first, the classification error is eliminated, and, second, the sum of the absolute values of the parameters is minimized. The latter objective means that the network realizing the input-output mapping will be as simple as possible.

There will be variables and constraint equations in the data structures defining the optimization problem. Even if the matrices may become very large, the linear programming problem can still be solved efficiently.

2.1 Optimization example

Assume that the logical AND operation between the inputs and should be realized using a single perceptron. Now, , , and T=4. The input patterns are

and the corresponding scalar outputs should be

The parameters to be optimized are collected in the vector :

Matrices A and b are presented in the form , also showing (using `*' symbols) the basis variables corresponding to each row:

In the b vector, one has now . The original weighting of the variables, as motivated above, is

where M is a large number. However, this original set of , A, and b does not constitute a feasible solution for the problem---the basis variables , , , and must have zero weights in c. Using the constraint equations, the objective function can be modified:

When the Simplex algorithm is applied (for example, see [4]), the optimum is found after only 4 iterations:

The matrices W and U can directly be constructed from the result. The basis variables , , , and are the only non-zero variables in the optimal realization, and their values can directly be seen in the vector b:

The variable value reveals that when the input is , the node output is `truncated' from -3 to -1 because of the nonlinearity.

3 More complex networks

A one-layer perceptron network can only be used for classification if the classes are linearly separable. Two or more layers of perceptrons can be used in more complex cases, but because of the non-differentiable nonlinearities, no efficient adaptation algorithms exist.

One approach to adapting a two-layer perceptron is to randomly select the first layer weights, and hope that among the hidden layer units, linearly separable combinations of the inputs emerge---the second layer can then be adapted using the standard techniques (for example, see [1]). This way, however, the number of hidden layer units tends to become large.

The above structural optimization method can be used to `prune' the network. If a non-optimal two-layer perceptron network exists, the hidden layer units can be regarded as inputs to the latter part of the network. After the weights between the hidden layer and the output layer are optimized, hidden layer units with no connections can be eliminated. In the second phase, the weights between the inputs and the remaining hidden units are optimized.

3.1 Two-layer networks

Assume that the goal is to optimize a two-layer perceptron classifier. The calculation of the hidden layer units z, and, further, the output layer y, can be presented in the matrix form as

The optimization is carried out in two steps as presented in the previous section, and only an example is presented here. The four inputs of dimension two are supposed to be

The outputs, corresponding to the above inputs, should be

The output corresponds to the `exclusive or' ( XOR) function of the two inputs and , and is its negation.

Assume that a two-layer perceptron network with ten hidden layer units has been created for this classification task using some traditional technique. The hidden layer values corresponding to the given four inputs are

Because the given non-optimal network can perform the classification task, there must exist linearly separable combinations in the hidden layer. It is also possible to construct the desired outputs by applying the one-layer perceptron network between the hidden layer and the output layer.

The Simplex algorithm is applied (with in (3)). First, the weights between the hidden layer and the output layer are optimized. All variables have value zero in the optimum---this means that the desired output mapping can exactly be obtained.

It turns out that only two columns (columns 8 and 9) in the resulting weight matrix have non-zero elements, so that all other hidden layer elements except numbers 8 and 9 can be eliminated. The weight matrices are

and the two values of the `pruned' hidden layer are

When the values and the necessary values are known, the first layer can also be optimized. The result is

It needs to be noted that this two-phase technique for optimizing a two layer perceptron network---even if linearly separable hidden layer values were given---does not necessarily result in an optimal network. For example, the following realization with three hidden layer units (but with the same number of links between nodes) gives exactly the same minimum cost in the second layer optimization phase:

even if the first layer now becomes considerably more complex:

3.2 Multi-level structures

It is also possible to define the perceptron network structure so that there are recurrent loops:

The links between perceptrons are here presented as elements of the matrix V. Defining appropriately, any kinds of perceptron structures can be presented in the same framework---for example, it is not necessary to distinguish between the `hidden layer' nodes and the `output' nodes, and the vector can be constructed as

The above formulation can again be written in the linear programming form---first, assuming that , one has

and if ,

For optimization purposes, a set of feasible values are again needed---only after that the optimization between them becomes possible. In the following example, the solution that was found in the previous section, is used as the starting point for finding an optimized solution for the same XOR problem:

with the input values as given in the previous section. It turns out that the resulting matrices are

The structure of the matrix V was restricted in the equations to be upper triangular with zero diagonal elements. This rather heuristic limitation may result in suboptimal solutions. However, recurrent structures cause severe difficulties---for example, allowing diagonal elements in V, any value could trivially be explained using only the node itself!

The `upper triangular' construction of V allows the output nodes and to be explained not only in terms of all of the hidden nodes and the inputs, but the output nodes can also be linked---this possibility makes the optimized structure simpler than would have been possible using strict node level hierarchy (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2:   An optimized multi-level realization


This research has been financed by the Academy of Finland, and this support is gratefully acknowledged.


Demuth, H. and Beale, M.: Neural Network Toolbox User's Guide. MathWorks, Inc., Natick, Massachusetts, 1994.

Hyötyniemi, H.: Correlations---Building Blocks of Intelligence? In Älyn ulottuvuudet ja oppihistoria (History and dimensions of intelligence), Finnish Artificial Intelligence Society, 1995, pp. 199--226.

Nissinen, A.: Structural Optimization of Feedforward Neural Networks using Genetic Algorithm. Tampere University of Technology, Control Engineering Laboratory, Report 5, 1994.

Taha, H.A.: Operations Research---An Introduction. MacMillan Publishing, New York, 1992 (5th edition).

About this document ...

Structural Optimization of Feedforward Networks

This document was generated using the LaTeX2HTML translator Version 95.1 (Fri Jan 20 1995) Copyright © 1993, 1994, Nikos Drakos, Computer Based Learning Unit, University of Leeds.

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The translation was initiated by Heikki Hy|tyniemi on Mon Aug 26 12:50:30 EET DST 1996

This paper was presented at the Symposium on Artificial Networks (Finnish Artificial Intelligence Conference), August 19--23, in Vaasa, Finland, organized by the Finnish Artificial Intelligence Society and University of Vaasa. Published in "STeP'96---Genes, Nets and Symbols", edited by Alander, J., Honkela, T., and Jakobsson, M., Finnish Artificial Intelligence Society, pp. 25--34.

Heikki Hy|tyniemi
Mon Aug 26 12:50:30 EET DST 1996