Autoencoder Made Easy — Variations, Applications, Tutorial in Python With TensorFlow

by | Mar 3, 2023 | Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing

Autoencoder variations explained, common applications and their use in NLP, how to use them for anomaly detection and Python implementation in TensorFlow

What is an autoencoder?

An autoencoder is a neural network trained to learn a compressed data representation. It consists of two parts: an encoder and a decoder. The encoder takes in the input data and compresses it into a lower-dimensional representation, while the decoder takes the compressed representation and reconstructs the original input data.

An autoencoder aims to learn a compressed version of the data that captures essential parts of the data. This consolidated version can be used for many things, like data compression, noise removal, and finding outliers.

Most autoencoders are trained using unsupervised learning methods like backpropagation, in which the data used to train the network is also used as its input and output. In addition, the network is trained to minimise the difference between the data it receives and sends. This helps the network learn a properly compressed way to represent the data.

Autoencoders have many applications in various fields, such as image and audio processing, natural language processing, and anomaly detection. They are beneficial when working with data with many dimensions and can be used to reduce the number of dimensions while keeping essential information.

Autoencoders have many applications, including audio processing

Autoencoders have many applications, including audio processing

What are the different types of autoencoders?

Several types of autoencoders have been developed to address different types of data and tasks. Some of the most common types of autoencoders include:

  1. Standard Autoencoder: This is the standard type of autoencoder that consists of an encoder and a decoder. It is used for data compression and reconstruction tasks.
  2. Convolutional Autoencoder: This type of autoencoder is used for image-processing tasks. It uses convolutional layers in the encoder and decoder to learn the features of the input image.
  3. Recurrent Autoencoder: This type of autoencoder is used for sequential data, such as time series or natural language processing tasks. It uses recurrent layers in both the encoder and the decoder to determine how the data changes over time.
  4. Variational Autoencoder: This type of autoencoder generates new data samples similar to the training data. It uses a probabilistic method to learn a probability distribution over the compressed version of the data.
  5. Denoising Autoencoder: This type of autoencoder removes noise from the input data. It is taught to learn a compressed version of the noisy data and then use that to determine the original, clean data.
  6. Sparse Autoencoder: This type of autoencoder is used for feature selection and dimensionality reduction. It is trained to learn a compressed representation of sparse data, meaning it has many zero values.

The type of autoencoder to use depends on the type of data and the task at hand. Each kind of autoencoder has pros and cons, and choosing the right one can improve performance and results.

A popular autoencoder – the variational autoencoder explained

A variational autoencoder (VAE) is a generative model used to learn a compressed representation of data in an unsupervised way. Unlike a standard autoencoder, which learns a deterministic mapping from input to output, a VAE learns a probability distribution over the latent variables that can be used to generate new samples of data similar to the training data.

The basic architecture of a VAE is similar to that of a standard autoencoder, with an encoder network that maps the input data to a latent variable distribution and a decoder network that maps the latent variable back to the input data. However, instead of learning a deterministic mapping from input to output, the VAE learns a probability distribution over the latent variable using a variation of the standard autoencoder called the “variational” method.

The variational method adds a regularisation term to the loss function. This makes the distribution of the latent variable more like a known prior distribution, which is usually a standard normal distribution. In addition, this regularisation term is used to put a limit on how the latent variables are distributed. This helps stop overfitting and lets the VAE make new data samples similar to the training data.

VAE can generate new data

The VAE can generate new data samples by sampling a latent variable from the learned distribution and then passing it through the decoder network to generate a new sample. This enables the VAE to create new data samples similar to the training data but with slight variations that can be controlled by manipulating the latent variable.

The VAE can be used in many fields, such as processing images and sounds, natural language, and finding unusual things. It is beneficial when working with high-dimensional data. It can be used to learn a compressed representation of the data that captures essential features while allowing new samples to be made that are similar to the training data.

What are the common applications of autoencoders?

Autoencoders have many applications in various fields, including:

  1. Image Compression and Reconstruction: Autoencoders can compress high-dimensional image data while keeping essential parts of the image. They can also reconstruct the original image from the compressed representation.
  2. Anomaly Detection: Autoencoders can detect anomalies in data by comparing the reconstructed data to the original data. If there is a big difference between the reconstructed data and the actual data, something strange is going on with the data.
  3. Denoising: Autoencoders can eliminate noise in data by learning a compressed representation of the data that captures the most important features while filtering out the noise.
  4. Feature Extraction and Dimensionality Reduction: Autoencoders can pull out important features from high-dimensional data and reduce the number of dimensions in the data while keeping the most crucial information.
  5. Data Generation: Variational autoencoders can make new data samples similar to the training data by taking samples from the learned distribution over the latent variables.
  6. Natural Language Processing: Autoencoders can be used to learn compressed representations of text data, like documents or sentences, that capture the most critical parts of the text.
  7. Time Series Analysis: Recurrent autoencoders can learn compact representations of time series data that show how the data changes over time.

Overall, autoencoders can be used for many different things. For example, they are beneficial for tasks that involve high-dimensional data or complicated patterns.

Autoencoders for NLP applications

Autoencoders can also be used for natural language processing (NLP) tasks. Here are a few examples of how autoencoders can be used in NLP:

  1. Text Classification: Autoencoders can classify text by encoding the text into a lower-dimensional representation and then using a classifier to predict the output label. This is possible by fine-tuning the final layer to predict the class label and training the autoencoder on a sizable corpus of text data.
  2. Text Generation: Autoencoders can be used for text generation by training the autoencoder to generate new text similar to the input text. To do this, the autoencoder is taught to turn the text it is given into a compressed form and then back into the original text. By taking random bits from the compact representation and decoding them to make new text, the autoencoder can be used to create a new text.
  3. Text Summarisation: Autoencoders can summarise text by training the autoencoder to encode the input text into a compressed representation and then decode it to produce a summary of the input text. This is achieved by training the autoencoder to minimise the reconstruction error between the input text and the summary.

Python has several deep learning frameworks, such as TensorFlow, Keras, and PyTorch, that can be used to make autoencoders. The implementation will depend on the NLP task and the data format used.

Autoencoders for anomaly detection

Autoencoders can find anomalies by training them on “healthy” data and then using them to find anomalies in “unhealthy” new data.

The basic idea is that the autoencoder learns to compress the standard data into a lower-dimensional representation and then reconstruct it back to its original form. Anomalies or outliers in the data will not fit well with the compressed learned representation, causing the reconstruction error to be larger than usual.

To detect anomalies using an autoencoder, the steps are as follows:

  1. Train the autoencoder on standard data to learn a compressed data representation.
  2. Compute the reconstruction error for each data point in the standard data set.
  3. Set a threshold for the reconstruction error above which data points are considered abnormal.
  4. Use the trained autoencoder to reconstruct new data and determine each data point’s reconstruction error.
  5. Find the data points where the reconstruction error is greater than the threshold. These are called anomalies or outliers.

Autoencoders are great for finding anomalies because they can find complex patterns and relationships in the data that other methods might miss. They can also handle high-dimensional data and adapt to different types and applications.

Autoencoder in Python with TensorFlow

Autoencoder is a famous deep learning architecture that can work with TensorFlow, Keras, and PyTorch, among other deep learning frameworks in Python.

Here is an example implementation of a simple autoencoder using TensorFlow in Python:

import tensorflow as tf
from tensorflow.keras.layers import Input, Dense
from tensorflow.keras.models import Model

# Define the input shape of the autoencoder
input_shape = (784,)

# Define the encoder architecture
inputs = Input(shape=input_shape)
encoded = Dense(128, activation='relu')(inputs)
encoded = Dense(64, activation='relu')(encoded)
encoded = Dense(32, activation='relu')(encoded)

# Define the decoder architecture
decoded = Dense(64, activation='relu')(encoded)
decoded = Dense(128, activation='relu')(decoded)
decoded = Dense(784, activation='sigmoid')(decoded)

# Define the autoencoder model
autoencoder = Model(inputs, decoded)

# Compile the autoencoder model
autoencoder.compile(optimizer='adam', loss='binary_crossentropy')

# Load the MNIST dataset
(x_train, _), (x_test, _) = tf.keras.datasets.mnist.load_data()

# Normalize the pixel values to be between 0 and 1
x_train = x_train.astype('float32') / 255.
x_test = x_test.astype('float32') / 255.

# Reshape the data to be compatible with the autoencoder input shape
x_train = x_train.reshape((len(x_train),[1:])))
x_test = x_test.reshape((len(x_test),[1:])))

# Train the autoencoder on the MNIST dataset, x_train,
                validation_data=(x_test, x_test))

# Use the autoencoder to encode and decode new data
encoded_imgs = encoder.predict(x_test)
decoded_imgs = decoder.predict(encoded_imgs)

In this example, we define a simple autoencoder architecture with encoding and decoding layers that are all connected.

We then compile the model and train it on the MNIST dataset.

Finally, we use the trained autoencoder to encode and decode new data.


Autoencoders are an essential type of neural network architecture that can be used for various applications, such as dimensionality reduction, anomaly detection, and image and text generation. They work by learning a compressed representation of the input data and then using this representation to reconstruct the original data. Autoencoders have been applied in many domains, including computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing.

Python has many deep learning frameworks, such as TensorFlow, Keras, and PyTorch, that can be used to build autoencoders. TensorFlow is a popular choice for putting autoencoders into place because it is easy to use and flexible. With TensorFlow, developers can quickly and easily build, train, and test models for various applications in various domains.

About the Author

Neri Van Otten

Neri Van Otten

Neri Van Otten is the founder of Spot Intelligence, a machine learning engineer with over 12 years of experience specialising in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and deep learning innovation. Dedicated to making your projects succeed.

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