An Introduction to Deep Learning

Whether you know it or not, artificial intelligence has already changed every single one of our lives, and one of the key pieces of technology that made that possible is deep learning.

Deep learning is one of many subfields of AI that is inspired by the structure and function of the human brain. As a result, it is effectively teaching machines to carry out tasks that require human-like intuition, such as recognizing speech, understanding language, identifying images, and making predictions.

Deep learning algorithms have become essential due to their ability to process vast amounts of data, learn from it, and provide highly accurate predictions and decision-making capabilities.

This article serves as an introduction to deep learning that anyone can follow along with, let’s get into it!

Machine Learning vs. Deep Learning

To get started, it’s worth outlining the key differences between machine learning and deep learning, as the two can often be confused.

Machine LearningDeep Learning
DefinitionA subset of AI that uses algorithms to make informed decisions based on what it has learned.A subset of Machine Learning that uses artificial neural networks to model and understand complex patterns.
Data RequirementsTypically works well with small and medium-sized datasets.Requires large amounts of data to understand and learn from it effectively.
Computational RequirementsCan work on low-end machines.Requires high-end machines due to the complexity of the computations.
Feature ExtractionRequires manual feature extraction and data labeling.Capable of learning features from raw data automatically, reducing the need for manual feature extraction.
InterpretabilityEasier to understand and interpret, as the decision-making process is often transparent.The decision-making process is often referred to as a “black box” due to its complexity, making it less interpretable.
Training TimeDepending on the algorithm used and data size, the training time can be relatively short.Due to the complexity of neural networks and the size of the datasets, the training time can be significantly longer.
ApplicationsUsed in a wide range of applications, including recommendation systems, spam filtering, fraud detection, etc.Used extensively in fields where high-dimensional data is prevalent, such as image and speech recognition, natural language processing, etc.
Problem-Solving ApproachTends to solve problems using a linear approach.Can solve problems hierarchically, breaking down complex concepts into simpler ones.

Basic Deep Learning Concepts

There are a number of different methodologies that make up a deep learning system, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common systems you’ll find in a deep learning model.

Neural Networks

A basic neural network showing an input layer with 3 nodes, 2 hidden layers each with 4 nodes, and an output layer with two nodes. All nodes are connected rareconnections logo

Inspired by the human brain, Artificial Neural Networks are a class of artificial intelligence models within the broader machine-learning field.

Neural networks consist of interconnected layers of nodes or “neurons” that can process and transmit data. Each neuron applies a set of weights to the inputs, adds a bias, and passes the sum through an activation function.

Think of it like this: Each neuron (or node) acts like a detective, using clues (weights) to make an educated guess about a case (input). The detective’s unique perspective (bias) influences the final guess. Whether the detective shares this guess with the police chief (the next neuron) depends on how sure they are (activation function).

Neural networks can model complex relationships and are particularly effective in tasks such as image and speech recognition, natural language processing, and many other areas where pattern recognition is key.

Supervised Learning

Neural Network with supervised learning. labelled data indicating the cost of houses (output layer) based on the size and location (input layer). rareconnections logo
Input nodes correspond to the features in the dataset (size, location), with several hidden layers in between, and output nodes correspond to the predicted labels (price).

In supervised learning, the term “supervised” refers to the presence of a known output in the training data, which guides the learning process of the algorithm, this is commonly referred to as labeled data. The supervision can apply to any type of machine learning algorithm, not just neural networks or deep learning models.

An example is predicting house prices based on features like size and location. The data used to train the model contains information about size, location, and price. Using this labeled data, the algorithm learns the mapping between features and prices.

So in machine learning and deep learning models, supervised learning indicates the dataset used for training contains both input and output layer data points.

Unsupervised Learning

Neural Network with unsupervised learning, customer data on the input layer. rareconnections logo
Input nodes correspond to customer characteristics, the algorithm learns patterns in the data and assigns output nodes (clusters or groups) as it processes and learns from the data.

In unsupervised learning, the term “unsupervised” indicates the absence of a known output in the training data, meaning the learning process of the algorithm is unguided and left to find structure or patterns in the input data itself.

An example is identifying customer segments in a dataset containing customer characteristics like age, purchase history, and location. There is no right answer here to guide the neural network, so the algorithm itself has to discern patterns or groupings in the data.

So to put it simply, if you’re training any kind of algorithm with only inputs and no known outputs, you’re conducting unsupervised learning.

Reinforcement Learning

Reinforcement learning block diagram with an agent taking an action in the environment, the environment provides a reward and a state back to the agent.
The Agent plays a move (action) on the chess board (environment) the state of the board and a reward is fed back to the agent for training.

In reinforcement learning, the term “reinforcement” denotes a method of learning that is guided by rewards and penalties, also known as positive and negative reinforcement. Unlike supervised learning, the algorithm doesn’t have direct access to the correct output or decision in the training data. Instead, it learns by exploring the environment, taking actions, and receiving feedback in terms of rewards or penalties. The objective of the algorithm is to learn a policy, which dictates the best action to take in each state to maximize the cumulative reward over time.

An example is a chess-playing AI. The AI does not have access to a labeled dataset of the right moves for every possible state of the chessboard. Instead, it learns by playing games, making moves (actions), and receiving feedback in the form of winning, losing, or drawing the game (reward). Over time, the AI learns to associate the sequences of actions that lead to winning the game and avoid those that lead to losing.

So in summary, reinforcement learning is used in contexts where you have a sequence of decisions to make, the consequences of those decisions may not be immediately known, and the goal is to maximize some overall measure of reward.


Backpropagation is a key algorithm in deep learning that is used in conjunction with an optimization method like gradient descent. While gradient descent is used to adjust the model’s weights and biases in the direction that reduces the error, backpropagation is the process that calculates the gradient that is needed for the gradient descent step.

Consider a neural network that classifies images. During training, it produces predictions that are compared to the actual categories, creating an error value based on how good the prediction was. Backpropagation starts with this error value and works backward through the network. It calculates how small changes in each weight and bias would affect the overall error. These calculations form the “gradient”, which is used in the next step of the process: gradient descent.

To put it simply, backpropagation is the means by which we understand how changing the parameters of the neural network impacts the error of the model. This knowledge is then used to adjust the parameters in such a way as to minimize that error.

Gradient Descent

Gradient descent is an optimization algorithm used in machine learning, deep learning, and data science for finding the minimum of a function. It’s not a learning method itself like supervised, unsupervised, or reinforcement learning, but is a tool often used within these methods, especially in the training of neural networks.

An example of gradient descent in action can be seen in the training process of a neural network for image recognition. In this context, the error rate of the network is defined by the discrepancy between the network’s predictions and the true values. The gradient descent algorithm iteratively adjusts the network’s parameters in the direction that minimally decreases this error rate, effectively ‘descending’ along the error landscape.

To visualize this, imagine you’re at the top of a hilly terrain and your goal is to get to the lowest point. In gradient descent, in each step, you look around you and take a step in the direction where the slope is steepest downwards. You repeat this process until you get to a point where you can’t go further down – a local minimum.

Gradient descent is a fundamental concept in deep learning because it’s the primary method for optimizing the weights and biases of neural networks.

Deep Learning Architectures

Architectures in deep learning refer to the specific arrangements of algorithms and computational models, like neural networks, in a system. The architecture includes structural elements such as layers, units within layers, connections between units, and methods for weight adjustment. The architecture will have a large influence on how deep learning will take place.

Multilayer Perceptrons

Multilayer Perceptrons are fundamental deep learning algorithms structured as layered feedforward networks. MLPs consist of an input layer, one or more hidden layers, and an output layer. Each layer is fully connected to the next. MLPs can learn non-linear models through backpropagation and are used for tasks like regression and classification.

It’s essentially a fancy name for a basic feedforward neural network, meaning the data flows in one direction from input to output and there are no loops like in recurrent neural networks.

Convolutional Neural Networks

Convolutional neural network example layout with input, convolution, pooling, dense, and output layers

Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) are a class of deep learning models, which have shown exceptional performance in various image-processing tasks such as image classification, object detection, and segmentation. CNNs draw their inspiration from the visual cortex structure in the brain and the way it processes visual information.

A distinguishing aspect of CNNs is their ability to automatically and adaptively learn spatial hierarchies of features from the input data. This is achieved using convolutional layers, which apply various filters to the input data. These filters serve as feature detectors, capable of recognizing basic features such as edges and curves, as well as more complex, high-level features when considering deeper layers of the network.

Downscaling of the feature maps generated by convolutional layers is done by pooling layers, which help reduce the computational complexity and provide a form of translational invariance to the network. The reduction of spatial dimensions allows the network to focus on the most important features.

The final stage in a typical CNN architecture includes one or more fully connected layers. These layers take the high-level, abstract representations learned by the convolutional layers and pooling layers, and use them to classify the input data into various categories.

The strength of CNNs lies in their ability to learn complex patterns and hierarchies of features directly from image data, without the need for manual feature extraction. By learning and recognizing these patterns, CNNs can accurately perform a variety of complex image-processing tasks.

Recurrent Neural Networks

Recurrent Neural Networks are specialized for processing sequential data, often used in fields like natural language processing where the length of input and output can vary.

A core challenge with RNNs is the problem of long-term dependencies, wherein the network must retain and use earlier sequence information to accurately interpret or predict later parts. This is problematic for traditional RNNs due to the ‘vanishing gradient’ problem, which causes the network to essentially forget essential information from earlier in the sequence.

To combat this issue, LSTM (Long Short-Term Memory) and GRU (Gated Recurrent Unit) variants of RNNs have been developed. These variants introduce gating mechanisms, sophisticated structures that manage the information flow within the network, ensuring the necessary context is maintained over extended sequences and effectively addressing the issue of long-term dependencies.

Deep Belief Networks

Deep Belief Networks (DBNs) are artificial neural networks that recognize patterns in complex data through multiple layers of neurons or “hidden units”.

They’re constructed from layers of simpler networks, like Restricted Boltzmann Machines (RBMs) or autoencoders. These simpler networks have two layers – an input and a hidden layer – that interact, influencing each other’s states. RBMs and autoencoders excel in dimensionality reduction, simplifying complex data by reducing it to its principal features, and in feature learning, automatically identifying important data characteristics.

DBNs find usage in diverse tasks including image and speech recognition, natural language processing, and multi-modal learning, where they handle data from different formats or sources.

Self-Organizing Maps

Self-organizing maps (SOMs) are a type of artificial neural network that performs unsupervised learning and produce a low-dimensional, discretized representation of the input space, often called a map. They’re useful for visualization and clustering high-dimensional data, maintaining topological properties of the original input space.


Autoencoders are neural networks used for unsupervised learning of efficient codings. They consist of an encoder that compresses input into a latent-space representation and a decoder that reconstructs the original input from this representation. They’re used for tasks such as noise reduction, feature extraction, and dimensionality reduction.

Applications of Deep Learning

The applications of deep learning algorithms are vast and have significantly progressed many fields within artificial intelligence.

Computer Vision

Computer vision applied to a football match indicating distance between players relative to each other and the ball.

Computer vision involves the extraction, analysis, and understanding of useful information from digital images. It’s used in facial recognition systems (like in your smartphone for secure login), object detection in self-driving cars (to detect pedestrians, other vehicles), and in medical imaging (to analyze images to detect tumors or other anomalies).

Natural Language Processing

This field encompasses the interaction between computers and human language, enabling systems to understand, generate, and respond to human text or speech. Examples include translation services like Google Translate, chatbots in customer service, and sentiment analysis tools used in market research.

Speech Recognition and Generation

This technology allows systems to understand and convert spoken language into written text, and vice versa. Examples include voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and dictation software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

Recommender Systems

Book recommender system with a user, books read by user, and books recommended to user, connected by arrows

These algorithms suggest products or services based on user behavior and preferences. For example, Netflix recommends movies and TV shows based on your watching history, and Amazon suggests products based on your browsing and purchase history.

Predictive Analytics

This involves the use of data, statistical algorithms, and machine learning techniques to identify the likelihood of future outcomes. It’s used in various domains, like weather forecasting, stock market prediction, and customer churn prediction in telecommunications and other industries.


This is the use of deep learning and other computational methods in the analysis and interpretation of biological data. It plays a vital role in gene sequencing, drug discovery, and understanding disease patterns.

Anomaly Detection

This involves identifying unusual patterns or outliers in the data. Credit card companies use it to detect fraudulent transactions, while cybersecurity systems use it to identify potential threats and intrusions.

Art and Style Transfer

This application of deep learning allows one to apply the style of a specific image to another, creating unique artwork. It’s used in apps like Prisma, which transforms photos into artworks using the style of famous artists.

Healthcare and Medical Imaging

Deep learning algorithms are used to analyze medical images for detecting diseases, predicting health risks, and more. For instance, algorithms are trained to detect cancerous tumors in MRI scans, or retinal diseases in eye scans.

Agriculture and Farming

Deep learning is used to optimize farming practices through crop and soil monitoring, disease detection, weather pattern prediction, and more. For instance, drones equipped with deep learning technology can identify areas of a field that need more attention, based on images captured from above.

Challenges with Deep Learning

There are many advantages to deep learning but of course, there are many disadvantages too. Let’s take a look at some of the disadvantages of deep learning:

  • Data Requirements: Deep learning models require a large amount of data to train effectively. Gathering such quantities of quality data can be challenging and time-consuming.
  • Computational Power: Training deep learning models is computationally intensive and may require high-performance GPUs, especially for large datasets. This can be cost-prohibitive for some.
  • Model Interpretability: Deep learning models, particularly complex ones like deep neural networks, are often seen as “black boxes”. The decisions they make are not easily interpretable, which can be problematic in scenarios where transparency is crucial.
  • Overfitting: Deep learning models have a tendency to fit the training data too well, including its noise and outliers. This results in poor performance when predicting on unseen data. Techniques like regularization and dropout are used to mitigate this.
  • Underfitting: If a model is too simple, it might not capture relevant patterns in the data, leading to underfitting. This can result in poor prediction accuracy.
  • Training Time: Depending on the size of the dataset and the complexity of the model, training a deep learning model can take a long time, from hours to weeks or even months.
  • Hyperparameter Tuning: Deep learning models have many hyperparameters that can greatly affect performance. Finding the right values can be a trial-and-error process and require a lot of time and resources.
  • Bias and Fairness: If the training data is biased, the model’s predictions can also be biased, leading to fairness issues. It’s crucial to ensure that the data is representative of the problem space.
  • Privacy and Security: The use of sensitive data in training deep learning models can raise privacy concerns. Additionally, deep learning models are vulnerable to adversarial attacks, where slight manipulations in the input can lead to drastically wrong outputs.
  • Resource Management: Deep learning models, especially those used in production, can be resource-hungry, requiring efficient resource management for their operation.
  • Reproducibility: Because of the complexity of deep learning models and their dependency on the initial random state, achieving exactly reproducible results can be challenging.

Deep learning continues to advance and evolve, introducing new trends and strategies. One such trend is the use of transfer learning and pre-trained models. These models, trained on vast datasets, are adapted to similar but new problems, thereby optimizing the learning process and saving substantial computational resources.

Another trend is the increasing use of Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). GANs are AI models that create new data mimicking the input data. They have found applications in creating realistic images, improving video game graphics, and even synthesizing human-like text.

The techniques of supervised and unsupervised learning remain crucial. Supervised learning, where models learn from labeled data, is commonly used, but unsupervised learning, where AI finds patterns in unlabeled data, is gaining more attention due to its potential to handle vast, complex datasets.

Reinforcement learning, a technique where models learn to make decisions by interacting with an environment, is experiencing an upswing due to its successful application in areas like game-playing AI and robotics.

A promising trend is multimodal learning, where models are trained to process and relate information from different types of data, such as text and images together. This technique enhances the model’s understanding and prediction capabilities.

Finally, explainability and interpretability are gaining significance, given the complexity of deep learning models. As AI models become an integral part of decision-making in sectors like healthcare and finance, the need for understanding and explaining their decisions becomes critical. This is driving research in making AI models more transparent and interpretable.


Well, there you have it! An introduction to deep learning.

As you would have gathered by now, deep learning is a vast and deep topic with countless sub-topics that could warrant articles of their own.

If you want to learn more about AI check out our Learn about AI section!

That’s all from me, thanks for reading.

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