Prototypical Networks Explained, Compared To Other Networks & How To Tutorial In PyTorch

by | Dec 7, 2023 | Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language Processing

What is a Prototypical Network?

At its core, Prototypical Networks represent a groundbreaking approach to tackling the complexities of classification problems, especially in scenarios where labelled data is scarce or insufficient. Unlike conventional deep learning models that often require vast amounts of annotated examples to generalize well, Prototypical Networks excel in scenarios with limited labelled data, making them a valuable asset in few-shot learning.

The fundamental premise of Prototypical Networks revolves around learning abstract representations, referred to as prototypes, which encapsulate the essence of different classes or categories within a dataset. By distilling the essential characteristics of each type into these prototypes, the network gains the ability to generalize more effectively, enabling robust classification even when faced with minimal labelled instances.

Throughout this exploration, we delve deeper into the architecture, mechanisms, and applications of Prototypical Networks, unravelling their inner workings and understanding their pivotal role in reshaping the landscape of machine learning tasks, from image classification to natural language processing.

How do Prototypical Networks Work?

Prototypical Networks fundamentally operate on the principle of prototype-based learning, a departure from traditional neural networks. At their core, they harness the concept of prototypes—abstract representations of classes within a dataset.

These prototypes are centroids in an embedding space, where data points are mapped to capture essential class characteristics. The critical components of Prototypical Networks include these prototypes, computed through a learning process, and a distance metric (such as Euclidean distance) used to compare data points with prototypes.

This paradigm shift from direct classification to comparison with prototypes enables more robust generalization, especially in scenarios with limited labelled data, setting them apart from conventional models.

Compared to traditional networks, Prototypical Networks excel in handling scenarios with sparse data, offering improved robustness and generalization. The training process involves iteratively updating prototypes using support sets (containing labelled examples) and query sets for inference, which showcases their effectiveness in few-shot learning scenarios.

few shot vs zero shot learning from the prototypical paper

Prototypical networks in the few-shot and zero-shot scenarios. Source: Original Paper

Visual representations and intuitive examples aid in grasping the concept—diagrams often illustrate how prototypes encapsulate class information, making the classification process more effective and adaptable.

The Architecture of Prototypical Networks

Prototypical Networks boast a unique architecture designed to harness the power of prototypes for adequate classification.

At its foundation lies the concept of an embedding space where data points are transformed into a meaningful representation. The network typically comprises several key components: The embedding module transforms raw data inputs into feature embeddings that capture essential characteristics. These embeddings are the basis for computing distances between data points and prototype representations.

Secondly, the prototype representation itself—abstract centroids that encapsulate the essential features of each class or category within the dataset. These prototypes evolve iteratively during training, becoming refined representations of class information.

Finally, the distance metric is a crucial element, measuring the similarity or dissimilarity between feature embeddings and prototype representations, often using metrics like Euclidean distance.

This architecture, structured around embeddings, prototypes, and distance computations, forms the backbone of Prototypical Networks, enabling their adaptability and effectiveness in classification tasks.

Training and Learning Mechanisms

The training process of Prototypical Networks involves a distinctive mechanism that leverages support sets and query sets to facilitate learning.

During training, the network learns to generate prototypes by iteratively updating them based on information from support sets—small subsets of the dataset containing labelled examples. These support sets aid in refining the prototypes, allowing them to encapsulate the essential features of each class.

Subsequently, query sets are utilized for inference, enabling the network to classify new data points by computing their similarity or distance to the learned prototypes.

This approach, often called few-shot learning, enables Prototypical Networks to generalize effectively even with minimal labelled instances. The iterative refinement of prototypes through support sets and the subsequent utilization of query sets for classification constitutes the fundamental learning mechanism that empowers Prototypical Networks to excel in scenarios with limited labelled data.

What are Prototypical Networks Used For?

Prototypical Networks exhibit versatility across various domains, finding applications in fields demanding robust classification. In image classification tasks, these networks shine by effectively categorizing images, even in scenarios with limited labelled examples per class.

Their ability to grasp essential features and generalize from minimal data makes them invaluable in few-shot learning scenarios where conventional models might struggle.

Beyond image classification, Prototypical Networks show promise in natural language processing tasks, aiding in text classification, sentiment analysis, and language generation. Additionally, their adaptability extends to healthcare, where they have shown potential in medical image analysis and disease diagnosis, leveraging the few-shot learning capabilities to make accurate predictions with limited patient data. As a result, Prototypical Networks emerge as a powerful tool across multiple domains, offering robust classification abilities even in data-scarce environments.

What are the Advantages and Limitations?


Prototypical Networks bring several critical advantages to the forefront of machine learning. Their ability to generalize effectively from limited labelled data sets them apart, making them particularly valuable in few-shot learning scenarios.

Unlike traditional models requiring extensive labelled examples, Prototypical Networks excel in tasks where data scarcity poses a challenge. Additionally, their prototype-based approach aids in robust classification, enhancing generalization capabilities across various domains. Moreover, the iterative learning mechanism allows these networks to adapt swiftly to new data, further solidifying their position as versatile and adaptable models in machine learning.


However, Prototypical Networks have their limitations. One primary concern is relying on embedding space and distance metrics, which may not always accurately capture complex relationships between data points.

The effectiveness of these networks can also be limited by the quality and representativeness of the labelled data used for training. Moreover, while Prototypical Networks excel in few-shot scenarios, their performance might degrade in tasks with highly complex or diverse classes, where defining prototypes becomes challenging. These limitations highlight areas for improvement and avenues for further research to enhance the capabilities of Prototypical Networks.

How do Prototypical Networks Compare to Other Few-Shot Learning Approaches, Such as Siamese Networks or Matching Networks?

Comparing Prototypical Networks with other few-shot learning approaches like Siamese Networks and Matching Networks reveals distinct characteristics and focuses within the domain of handling limited labelled data.

Prototypical Networks vs. Siamese Networks

  • Focus:
    • Prototypical Networks (ProtoNets): ProtoNets learn to represent each class in a prototype, enabling the classification of new instances by computing distances or similarities to these prototypes.
    • Siamese Networks: Siamese Networks learn similarity metrics between pairs of instances, training to differentiate between whether or not two inputs belong to the same class.
  • Training Mechanism:
    • ProtoNets: Utilize support and query sets, forming prototypes through an iterative process and predicting the class of query instances based on distances from prototypes.
    • Siamese Networks: Train on pairs of instances, learning to distinguish between similar and dissimilar pairs through a similarity metric, often using contrastive loss or triplet loss.
  • Generalization:
    • ProtoNets: Excel in generalization by learning prototypes that encapsulate class information, enabling robust classification even with limited labelled data.
    • Siamese Networks: Focus on learning a similarity metric, suitable for tasks like one-shot learning, but may not generalize as effectively as Prototypical Networks.

Prototypical Networks vs. Matching Networks

  • Learning Mechanism:
    • Prototypical Networks: Generate prototypes from support sets and utilize these prototypes to classify query instances based on distances or similarities.
    • Matching Networks: Employ attention mechanisms to weigh support set samples concerning the query instance for classification.
  • Adaptability:
    • ProtoNets: Show adaptability in scenarios with few labelled examples per class, excelling in few-shot learning tasks.
    • Matching Networks: Leverage attention to adaptively weigh support set samples, focusing on similarity computation between support and query instances.
  • Complexity and Computational Efficiency:
    • ProtoNets: Often simpler in architecture and more computationally efficient compared to Matching Networks.
    • Matching Networks: Utilize attention mechanisms, potentially making them more complex and computationally demanding.

Overall Comparison

  • Strengths:
    • Prototypical Networks: Excel in generalization, simplicity, and efficiency in few-shot learning tasks, especially in scenarios with limited labelled data.
    • Siamese Networks and Matching Networks: Focus on learning similarity metrics and adaptive attention mechanisms, respectively, offering different approaches for few-shot learning tasks.
  • Trade-offs:
    • ProtoNets: May struggle with complex class boundaries or highly diverse classes due to prototype-based representation.
    • Siamese Networks and Matching Networks: Might lack the same level of generalization as Prototypical Networks but could offer more nuanced similarity-based learning or attention-based mechanisms.

Each approach comes with its advantages and trade-offs, catering to different aspects of few-shot learning.

How to Implement a Prototypical Network in PyTorch

Omnigot is a dataset used to benchmark few-shot image classification methods. It contains single-channel images of various characters from different languages.

Training examples passed to the prototypical network

Omnigot data samples

Here is an example of how you might implement Prototypical Networks in PyTorch for a simple classification task using the Omniglot dataset, a few-shot learning benchmark:

# Load and split the Omniglot dataset
# Ensure that you have the dataset downloaded and extracted in the specified path
from torchvision.datasets import Omniglot
from torchvision.transforms import ToTensor
import torch

# Set the path to the Omniglot dataset
dataset_path = "path/to/omniglot/dataset"

# Define the transformations
transform = ToTensor()

# Load the Omniglot dataset
train_dataset = Omniglot(dataset_path, background=True, transform=transform, download=True)
test_dataset = Omniglot(dataset_path, background=False, transform=transform, download=True)

# Split the dataset into training and test sets
train_ratio = 0.8
train_size = int(train_ratio * len(train_dataset))
val_size = len(train_dataset) - train_size
train_dataset, val_dataset =, [train_size, val_size])

import torch
import torch.nn as nn
import torch.nn.functional as F

# Define the CNN architecture
class CNN(nn.Module):
    def __init__(self, num_classes):
        super(CNN, self).__init__()
        # Define your CNN layers here
        # Example architecture:
        self.conv1 = nn.Conv2d(in_channels=1, out_channels=64, kernel_size=3, padding=1)
        self.pool1 = nn.MaxPool2d(2)
        self.conv2 = nn.Conv2d(64, 128, kernel_size=3, padding=1)
        self.pool2 = nn.MaxPool2d(2)
        self.fc = nn.Linear(86528, num_classes)

    def forward(self, x):
        # Implement the forward pass of your CNN here
        # Example forward pass:
        x = F.relu(self.conv1(x))
        x = self.pool1(x)
        x = F.relu(self.conv2(x))
        x = self.pool2(x)
        #import ipdb; ipdb.set_trace()
        x = x.view(x.size(0), -1)
        x = self.fc(x)
        return x

# Initialize the model
from collections import defaultdict

# Assuming your dataset has a length property and the labels are accessible through indexing
num_samples = len(train_dataset)
label_count = defaultdict(int)

for i in range(num_samples):
    # Assuming the label is the second element in the tuple returned by the dataset
    label = train_dataset[i][1]
    label_count[label] += 1

num_classes = len(label_count)
print("Number of classes:", num_classes)

#num_classes = len(train_dataset.classes)
model = CNN(num_classes)

def calculate_prototypes(support_set, support_labels):
    unique_labels = torch.unique(support_labels)
    prototypes = {}
    for label in unique_labels:
        # Select examples belonging to the current label
        examples = support_set[support_labels == label]
        # Calculate the mean feature vector for the current class
        prototype = torch.mean(examples, dim=0)
        # Store the prototype for the current class
        prototypes[label.item()] = prototype
    return prototypes

def calculate_distance(query_example, prototypes):
    distances = {}
    for label, prototype in prototypes.items():
        # Calculate the Euclidean distance between the query example and the prototype
        distance = torch.norm(query_example - prototype)
        distances[label] = distance

    return distances

def predict_class(query_example, prototypes):
    # Calculate distances between the query example and prototypes
    distances = calculate_distance(query_example, prototypes)
    # Select the class with the closest prototype
    predicted_class = min(distances, key=distances.get)

    return predicted_class

import torch.optim as optim

# Define the loss function
loss_fn = nn.CrossEntropyLoss()

# Define the optimizer
optimizer = optim.Adam(model.parameters(), lr=0.001)

# Training loop
num_epochs = 10
batch_size = 32

batch_size = 64

from import DataLoader
train_loader = DataLoader(train_dataset, batch_size=batch_size, shuffle=True)

for epoch in range(num_epochs):
    running_loss = 0.0
    for batch_idx, (support_set, _) in enumerate(train_loader):

        # Assuming support_set contains images directly
        images = support_set

        # Generate labels for the support set (for example, creating sequential labels for each batch)
        labels = torch.arange(images.size(0))  # Creating labels [0, 1, 2, ...] for each batch

        # Forward pass
        outputs = model(support_set)
        print("Shapes - Outputs:", outputs.shape, "Labels:", labels.shape)
        # Calculate the prototypes
        prototypes = calculate_prototypes(support_set, labels)
        # Compute the loss
        loss = loss_fn(outputs, labels)
        # Backward pass and optimization
        running_loss += loss.item()
        if (batch_idx + 1) % 10 == 0:
            print(f"Epoch [{epoch + 1}/{num_epochs}], Batch [{batch_idx + 1}/{len(train_loader)}], Loss: {running_loss / 10}")
            running_loss = 0.0

What are the Variations of Prototypical Networks?

Prototypical Networks have inspired several variations and extensions, each tailored to address specific challenges or to enhance their capabilities in different scenarios within the domain of few-shot learning and classification tasks. Some notable variations include:

  1. Relation Networks (RNs): These networks augment Prototypical Networks by incorporating relation modules to learn the relationship between support set examples and query examples. RNs focus on capturing the relationship between pairs of instances and have shown promising results in few-shot learning tasks.
  2. Matching Networks: They utilize attention mechanisms to generate a weighted sum of the support set examples to classify the query examples. These networks aim to adaptively weigh the importance of support set samples in relation to the query sample.
  3. Memory-Augmented Networks: Integrating external memory modules, these networks aim to store and retrieve relevant information during the few-shot learning process. They enable the model to retain information from previous examples and use it to make predictions for new instances.
  4. Graph Neural Networks (GNNs) for Few-Shot Learning: GNNs leverage graph structures to model relationships between instances in the support set. They learn to propagate information across the graph to make predictions for query instances, showing promise in few-shot learning scenarios, especially in tasks where relationships between instances are crucial.
  5. Attention-Based Prototypical Networks: These variants integrate attention mechanisms within Prototypical Networks to dynamically focus on informative parts of the support set for better prototype generation and classification.
  6. Meta-Learning Approaches: Meta-learning frameworks, such as MAML (Model-Agnostic Meta-Learning), Reptile, or Meta-SGD, aim to train models in a way that enables them to adapt to new tasks or datasets with minimal data quickly. These methods often underlie various few-shot learning models, including some Prototypical Network variants.
  7. Hybrid Architectures: Some approaches combine the strengths of Prototypical Networks with other methodologies, such as connecting them with Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) or Variational Autoencoders (VAEs) to enhance feature representations or generate synthetic data for improved few-shot learning performance.

These variations showcase the adaptability and flexibility of the Prototypical Network concept, where researchers and practitioners continuously innovate to address challenges and push the boundaries of few-shot learning and classification tasks. Each variation has advantages and trade-offs, catering to different aspects of the few-shot learning problem.

Future Perspectives and Developments

1. Ongoing Research Trends

Ongoing research is actively exploring ways to enhance the capabilities of Prototypical Networks. Advancements in embedding techniques and distance metrics aim to refine the representation of data points, allowing for more nuanced and accurate classification. Additionally, efforts are underway to expand the applicability of Prototypical Networks across diverse domains beyond image classification and natural language processing.

2. Improving Robustness and Scalability

Future developments seek to address the limitations of Prototypical Networks, particularly in scenarios with complex and diverse classes. This includes refining the mechanism for defining prototypes in such challenging contexts, and potentially incorporating hierarchical structures or adaptive mechanisms to handle various data representations effectively.

3. Real-world Deployment and Practical Applications

The focus is shifting towards deploying these networks in real-world settings. As these networks mature, emphasis is placed on practical applications across industries like healthcare, finance, and robotics, aiming to leverage their few-shot learning capabilities for more accurate and efficient decision-making processes.

4. Ethical Considerations and Fairness

Future research is also delving into ethical considerations surrounding Prototypical Networks, particularly concerning biases inherent in labelled data and the implications for fairness in decision-making. Efforts to ensure fairness and mitigate biases are critical for the responsible deployment of these models in various applications.


Prototypical Networks represent a paradigm shift in machine learning, offering a unique approach to classification tasks, especially in scenarios with limited labelled data. Their reliance on prototypes—abstract representations of classes within a dataset—sets them apart, enabling effective few-shot learning capabilities. By distilling essential class characteristics into prototypes and utilizing distance metrics in embedding space, Prototypical Networks excel in generalization, robustness, and adaptability across various domains.

The architecture and learning mechanisms of Prototypical Networks, although still evolving, showcase immense promise. Their applications span diverse domains, from image classification and natural language processing to healthcare, where their ability to make accurate predictions from minimal labelled data proves invaluable.

However, like any model, Prototypical Networks have limitations, particularly in handling complex and diverse classes, as well as their reliance on the quality of labelled data. Yet, ongoing research endeavours seek to address these limitations and pave the way for future developments, aiming to enhance robustness, scalability, and ethical considerations in deploying these networks.

As these networks evolve, their potential for revolutionizing machine learning tasks, especially in scenarios with limited labelled data, remains a beacon of innovation and promise.

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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