After having done quite a few successful projects with Theano (and layers on top like Lasagne and blocks), I just had a minor epiphany, which I thought I’d share.

Don’t expect much : This is really Theano 101, except that I hadn’t thought it through before…

Suppose I make a Theano function, what kind of variables do I pass in?

Theano allows one to define a problem in numpy-like symbolic terms, and then (when you call the function) execute the backend either in raw C/C++, or on the GPU (CUDA or, with luck, OpenCL).

Here’s a quick example :

import theano

a = theano.tensor.scalar('a')
b = theano.tensor.scalar('b')

# Here's the symbolic bit
c = a + b

# Then we ask theano to compile the function f: (a,b) -> c
f = theano.function([a,b], c)

Now, this can be called with actual numbers :

result = f(1, 2)

And (assuming everything goes according to plan) result will get the value 3 (actually array(3.0) which is kind of a hint about what’s to come).

But the key thing is that the symbolic bit is doing more magic than I realised…

The theano.function() line is creating and returning a new python function (named f() here) that:

  • accepts numerical parameters (1 and 2 here);

  • and then puts them inside the symbolic containers (a and b);

  • the operation of the symbolic containers have have already been converted via the Theano parse tree optimiser into pure code, which is possibly un-mappable back to the Python source you’ve written (but that much I understood)

  • so it executes that code to produce a bunch of ‘wrapped’ answers;

  • and then it finally unwraps the answer result from the symbolic bit and returns it to the user.

My simple epiphany is that the user never interacts with the symbols themselves (so, for instance, you can’t take a shape of a symbolic value and print it out directly). The theano.function() line of code is like a curtain that separates the ‘plain numbers’ side with Theano’s backend symbolic manipulation.

Regular users can’t look behind the window : The code that defines the calculation symbolically is for Theano’s consumption. Your only access to it is through the function f() – which was delivered by Theano itself through the theano.function() call – that operates in the real world (i.e. on actual numbers, or numpy entities).

Sigh : It took far too long for me to understand why the symbolic stuff was so un-debuggable…

Martin Andrews

{Finance, Software, AI} entrepreneur, living in Singapore with my family.

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