Feedforward Neural Networks Made Simple With Different Types Explained

by | Mar 13, 2023 | artificial intelligence, Machine Learning

How does a feedforward neural network work? What are the different variations? With a detailed explanation of a single-layer feedforward network and a multi-layer feedforward network.

What is a feedforward neural network?

A feedforward neural network (FFNN) is an artificial neural network (ANN) where the information flows only in one direction, from input to output. This means the connections between the neurons do not form cycles, and the network has no feedback loops.

A feedforward neural network comprises of three main parts: an input layer, one or more hidden layers, and an output layer.

A feedforward is the simplest form of a neural network

A feedforward is the simplest form of a neural network

Multiple neurons make up each layer, and weights connect them to neurons in the layer above and below. The data goes into the input layer, and based on that data, the output layer makes a prediction or a classification. The hidden layers process the data in between, using a nonlinear transformation.

During training, the weights in the network are adjusted through a process called backpropagation, which uses an optimisation algorithm to minimise a loss function that measures the difference between the predicted output and the actual output. This allows the network to learn to make better predictions over time.

Feedforward neural networks are often used for many things, such as recognising images and voices, processing natural languages, and making predictions. However, they struggle with the ability to model complex temporal relationships and may not be suitable for tasks such as sequential data processing or time series forecasting. In these cases, recurrent neural networks (RNNs) or other types of ANNs may be more appropriate.

Types of feedforward neural network

There are several types of feedforward neural networks, each with its unique architecture and characteristics. Here are some of the most common types:

  1. Single-layer feedforward neural network: This is the simplest type of feedforward neural network because it only has one layer of neurons. It is often used for simple classification tasks.
  2. Multi-layer feedforward neural network: This type of network has one or more hidden layers between the input and output layers. The hidden layers let the network learn more complicated ways to represent the data it gets, which makes it better at solving complex problems.
  3. Convolutional neural network (CNN): This type of network is often used for image recognition and computer vision tasks. It uses convolutional layers to find features in the image it is given and pool layers to reduce the number of dimensions in the image it gives back.
  4. Recurrent neural network (RNN): Unlike traditional feedforward neural networks, RNNs have feedback connections that let them process data sequences, like text or time series data. They are commonly used in natural language processing and speech recognition.
  5. Autoencoder: An autoencoder is a neural network used for unsupervised learning. It is made up of an encoder and a decoder. The encoder and decoder work together to learn a compressed version of the data given to them.
  6. Deep belief network (DBN): A DBN is a neural network comprising many layers of restricted Boltzmann machines (RBMs). It is used for unsupervised learning tasks such as feature extraction and data compression.

Each of these types of feedforward neural networks has its strengths and weaknesses and may be more or less suitable for different kinds of tasks.

Single-layer feedforward network

A single-layer feedforward network (SLFN) is a feedforward neural network consisting of only one layer of neurons. This layer is also known as the output layer, as it directly produces the network’s output.

In an SLFN, the input goes through the neurons in the output layer, where each neuron uses a linear or nonlinear activation function to make an output. The final output of the network is then made by adding up all the outputs of the neurons. Most of the time, an algorithm like backpropagation is used to learn the weights between the input and output layers.

While SLFNs are simple and efficient, they have limitations regarding their ability to model complex data. Because they have only one layer of neurons, they cannot learn complex representations of the input data. So, they are often used for simple classification tasks or as a starting point for more complex neural network architectures.

One advantage of SLFNs is that they are computationally efficient and can be trained quickly. They are also easy to implement and can be used for real-time applications where speed is essential. Also, using linear or nonlinear transformations, SLFNs can help reduce the number of dimensions of high-dimensional data, like images or text, by projecting it onto a lower-dimensional space.

Multi-layer feedforward network

A multi-layer feedforward neural network (MFNN), also called a multi-layer perceptron (MLP), is a feedforward neural network with one or more hidden layers in addition to the input and output layers. There are many neurons in each layer, and their connections are weighted.

The data is sent to the input layer, which processes nonlinear activation functions through the hidden layers. The outputs of the hidden layers are then passed to the output layer, which produces the network’s output.

The network’s weights are learned using a supervised learning algorithm like backpropagation. This algorithm adjusts the weights so that the difference between the predicted and actual output is as small as possible.

MFNNs are more potent than single-layer feedforward networks because they can learn complex nonlinear mappings between the input and output data. As a result, they are often used for various tasks, such as recognising images and voices, processing natural language, and making predictions.

One problem with MFNNs is that they can be hard to train because they need a lot of data and processing power. Additionally, they are prone to overfitting, which occurs when the network becomes too complex and begins to fit the noise in the data rather than the underlying patterns. Regularisation techniques, such as dropout or weight decay, can mitigate overfitting in MFNNs.

Deep feedforward network

Deep feedforward networks (DFNs), called deep neural networks (DNNs), are feedforward neural networks with usually more than two hidden layers. Because of the hidden layers, the network can learn more abstract features of the given data, which helps it make better and more accurate predictions.

DFNs can be thought of as an extension of MFNNs. The extra hidden layers make it more complex to represent the input data. For example, the network’s weights are learned through “backpropagation,” which repeatedly adjusts to reduce a “loss function” that measures how far the predicted output is from the actual output.

DFNs are often used in various situations, such as recognising images and speech, processing natural language, and making predictions. However, it has been shown that they are especially good at tasks that require high-dimensional input data, like images and text.

One of the main challenges with DFNs is training them effectively. As the number of hidden layers increases, the network can become susceptible to the vanishing gradient problem, where the gradient of the loss function with respect to the weights in the earlier layers becomes very small. This can cause the network to become stuck during training, preventing it from learning effectively. Techniques such as batch normalisation, residual connections, and weight initialisation have been developed to mitigate this problem.

DFNs are a powerful type of neural network that can solve a wide range of complex problems, but they require careful design and training to be effective.

Feedforward network example

One example of a feedforward neural network is a network used for image classification. Such a network takes an image as input and predicts the class label of the image, such as whether it contains a cat or a dog.

Usually, a network’s architecture comprises an input layer, one or more hidden layers, and an output layer. The image’s pixel values are sent to the input layer, which then uses nonlinear activation functions, like the rectified linear unit (ReLU) or sigmoid function, to send them to the hidden layers.

Each neuron in the output layer represents a different class, so the layer makes a probability distribution over the classes. The neuron with the highest output value represents the predicted class of the image.

Backpropagation is used to teach the network how to adjust its weights. Each time, the weights are changed so that the difference between the predicted class label and the actual class label of the training examples is as small as possible.

Once the network has been trained, it can classify new images by running them through the network and getting the predicted class label from the output layer.

Some popular feedforward neural networks for classifying images are the LeNet-5, AlexNet, and VGG models, which have reached the top level of performance on standard benchmarks for image classification like ImageNet.


Feedforward neural networks are a powerful type of neural network that can be used for many things, such as recognising images and voices, processing natural languages, and making predictions. They process input data in a forward direction, from the input layer through one or more hidden layers, to produce an output from the output layer.

Single-layer feedforward networks, like the perceptron, have a single layer of input neurons connected to a single output neuron. On the other hand, multi-layer feedforward networks have one or more hidden layers of neurons between the input and output layers. This lets them learn more abstract features of the input data.

Deep feedforward networks, also known as deep neural networks, are a type of multi-layer feedforward network with more than two hidden layers. They are particularly effective for tasks that involve high-dimensional input data, such as images and text, but can be challenging to train effectively.

Overall, feedforward neural networks are an essential and widely used tool in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and they continue to be an area of active research and development.

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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