An update on the softmax function for numpy.

January 2019

As of early 2019, my post on a softmax function for numpy accounts for 83% of traffic to my website (~16k views in 2018). I recently found that, as of version 1.2.0, scipy has included an implementation of the softmax in its special functions.

Some info on the change:

Originally, the proposed function looked very much like the one I had posted, but then a very smart person realized that you could use existing tooling around scipy.special.logsumexp to make things much cleaner.

So now the function is a freaking one-liner.

def softmax(x, axis=None):
     return np.exp(x - logsumexp(x, axis=axis, keepdims=True))

I 100% prefer importing a function from scipy over pasting a hand-written one. Especially given the beauty of that puppy. But the two functions are not totally swappable, there are a couple important changes in behavior:

  1. SciPy computes the softmax over all array elements by default. It will keep the shape but the entire result will sum to 1. My old function computed the softmax over the first non-singleton dimension like in MATLAB.
  2. There is no theta multiplier. In my function, a theta parameter was accepted to control determinism, but that was not implemented in the scipy function. No biggie, you'll just need to do softmax(X*theta) instead of softmax(X, theta=theta).

A quick performance comparison

I figured scipy had some magic stuff going on with logsumexp, and their function would be both more beautiful and performant than mine.

But I ran a quick handful of tests just for kicks. First I wrote up a decorator to print function exec time to the console and wrapped my softmax and scipy softmax in it.

from functools import wraps
import time
import numpy as np
import scipy.special

def timeit(f):
    """Decorator to print function exec time."""
    def wrap(*args, **kw):
        ts = time.time()
        result = f(*args, **kw)
        te = time.time()
        print(f'{f.__name__} took: {te-ts:2.4f}s')
        return result
    return wrap

def softmax_nolan(X, theta=1.0, axis=None):
    """My func without those pesky comments and docs."""
    y = np.atleast_2d(X)
    if axis is None:
        axis = next(j[0] for j in enumerate(y.shape) if j[1] > 1)
    y = y * float(theta)
    y = y - np.expand_dims(np.max(y, axis=axis), axis)
    y = np.exp(y)
    ax_sum = np.expand_dims(np.sum(y, axis=axis), axis)
    p = y / ax_sum
    if len(X.shape) == 1:
        p = p.flatten()
    return p

def softmax_scipy(X, theta=1.0, axis=None):
    """Scipy softmax with the axis inference and theta included."""
    y = np.atleast_2d(X)
    if axis is None:
        axis = next(j[0] for j in enumerate(y.shape) if j[1] > 1)
    return scipy.special.softmax(X * theta, axis=0)

I ran each function on 2D arrays of varying sizes and checked for differences in the results.

sizes = [
    (1000, 1000),
    (10000, 100),
    (100, 10000),
    (100000, 100),
    (100, 100000),
    (10, 1000000),
    (10, 10000000),

for size in sizes:
    arr = np.random.normal(size=size)

    print(f'Running: {size}')
    result_nolan = softmax_nolan(arr)
    result_scipy = softmax_scipy(arr)

    # check for differences
    max_diff = np.max(np.abs(result_scipy - result_nolan))
    assert max_diff < 1e-10, max_diff

Here is the full script, in case you want to toy around with it.


My function was ... faster?

Running: (10000,)
softmax_nolan took: 0.0004s
softmax_scipy took: 0.0162s

Running: (1000, 1000)
softmax_nolan took: 0.0210s
softmax_scipy took: 0.0259s

Running: (10000, 100)
softmax_nolan took: 0.0132s
softmax_scipy took: 0.0233s

Running: (100, 10000)
softmax_nolan took: 0.0141s
softmax_scipy took: 0.0198s

Running: (100000, 100)
softmax_nolan took: 0.2186s
softmax_scipy took: 0.2869s

Running: (100, 100000)
softmax_nolan took: 0.1633s
softmax_scipy took: 0.2740s

Running: (10, 1000000)
softmax_nolan took: 0.1962s
softmax_scipy took: 0.2792s

Running: (10, 10000000)
softmax_nolan took: 3.3774s
softmax_scipy took: 4.4439s

My function runs an exponential one time, whereas scipy runs the array through logsumexp and then exponentializes again. So maybe that's why we get these results? I don't really know what logsumexp does under the hood.

Anyway, I still prefer scipy softmax to reduce the dependency on a handwritten function.

Some notes:

  • I get similar results every time I ran the script.
  • I use a cruddy pip install on python 3.7.1. I don't know what would happen if those speedy conda optimizations were in play.