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CNN vs. RNN vs. ANN – Analyzing 3 Types of Neural Networks in Deep Learning

Updated: 2 days ago

The landscape of deep learning has introduced various types of neural networks, such as Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN), Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN), and Artificial Neural Networks (ANN), among others, fundamentally altering our interaction with the world. These neural network architectures lie at the heart of the deep learning revolution, powering groundbreaking applications like unmanned aerial vehicles, self-driving cars, speech recognition, and beyond.

Deep learning

While machine learning algorithms may seem comparable at first glance, there are distinct reasons why researchers and experts often favor deep learning over traditional machine learning approaches.

Two key differentiators are:

  • Decision Boundary

  • Feature Engineering.

Decision Boundary

In machine learning, algorithms are designed to learn the mapping from input to output. Parametric models, for instance, learn a function characterized by a set of weights:

        Input -> f(w1,w2…..wn) -> Output

In classification problems, algorithms aim to discern a decision boundary that separates different classes. This boundary delineates whether a given data point belongs to a positive or negative class.

Consider logistic regression, where the learning function is typically a Sigmoid function, attempting to separate two classes:

Deep learning - Decision boundary

Decision boundary of logistic regression

However, logistic regression and similar algorithms are restricted to learning linear decision boundaries. They falter when faced with nonlinear data like the following:

Deep learning - Nonlinear data

Nonlinear data

Consequently, these machine learning algorithms are limited in their ability to tackle problems with intricate relationships.

Feature Engineering

Feature engineering stands as a pivotal stage within the model development pipeline, encompassing two fundamental steps:

  1. Feature Extraction

  2. Feature Selection

During feature extraction, we procure all pertinent features relevant to our problem statement. Subsequently, in the feature selection phase, we identify and retain those features deemed crucial for enhancing the performance of our machine learning or deep learning model.

Take, for instance, an image classification task. Extracting features manually from an image necessitates profound subject knowledge and domain expertise. Moreover, it's an inherently labor-intensive endeavor. However, the advent of Deep Learning has revolutionized feature engineering by automating this process.

Machine Learning and Deep Learning

Comparison between Machine Learning & Deep Learning

Having grasped the significance of deep learning and its superiority over traditional machine learning algorithms, let's delve deeper into the essence of this discourse. We shall explore the myriad types of neural networks integral to tackling deep learning challenges effectively.

Different Types of Neural Networks in Deep Learning

This article focuses on three important types of neural networks that form the basis for most pre-trained models in deep learning:

  • Artificial Neural Networks (ANN)

  • Convolution Neural Networks (CNN)

  • Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN)

Let’s discuss each neural network in detail.

Artificial Neural Network (ANN)

An Artificial Neural Network (ANN) represents a collection of multiple perceptrons or neurons arranged in layers. Unlike a single perceptron, which can be likened to Logistic Regression, ANN comprises multiple layers, each containing numerous neurons. It's often referred to as a Feed-Forward Neural Network due to its processing of inputs exclusively in the forward direction.

Deep learning - ANN

The architecture of an ANN typically comprises three layers:

  1. Input Layer: This layer accepts the inputs provided to the network.

  2. Hidden Layer(s): Situated between the input and output layers, the hidden layer processes the inputs, performing computations to extract relevant features.

  3. Output Layer: This layer produces the final result or prediction based on the processed inputs.

Each layer within the ANN endeavors to learn specific weights that optimize the network's performance.

Applications of Artificial Neural Network (ANN)

ANN finds application in diverse problem domains, including:

  • Tabular data: For tasks like regression and classification.

  • Image data: In image recognition, object detection, and segmentation.

  • Text data: In natural language processing tasks such as sentiment analysis, text classification, and language translation.

Advantages of Artificial Neural Network (ANN)

  • Universal Function Approximators: ANNs possess the capability to learn any nonlinear function, earning them the moniker of Universal Function Approximators.

  • Nonlinear Mapping: Activation functions introduce nonlinear properties to the network, enabling it to learn complex relationships between inputs and outputs.

Deep learning - ANN 2

Challenges with Artificial Neural Network (ANN)

Despite their versatility, ANNs encounter several challenges:

  • Dimensionality: In image classification tasks, converting 2D images into 1D vectors prior to training significantly increases the number of trainable parameters, leading to computational inefficiency.

  • Spatial Features Loss: The transformation of images into 1D vectors results in the loss of spatial features, which are crucial for tasks like image recognition.

  • Vanishing and Exploding Gradient: In deep neural networks, the backpropagation algorithm used for weight updates may encounter the vanishing or exploding gradient problem, hindering training stability.

  • Sequential Information Handling: ANNs struggle to capture sequential information in input data, limiting their effectiveness in tasks involving sequence data processing.

ANNs exhibit limitations that necessitate the exploration of alternative architectures. In the subsequent sections, we'll delve into two such architectures—Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN) and Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN)—and discuss how they overcome the shortcomings of traditional Multilayer Perceptrons (MLP).

Recurrent Neural Network (RNN)

Understanding Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN) begins with recognizing the architectural differences between RNNs and traditional Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs):

Deep learning - RNN

In an ANN, a looping constraint on the hidden layer transforms it into an RNN. Unlike ANNs, RNNs incorporate recurrent connections within the hidden states. This looping constraint is pivotal, ensuring that sequential information is retained and processed within the input data.

Applications of Recurrent Neural Network (RNN)

RNNs find utility in a variety of domains, including:

  • Time Series data: For tasks such as forecasting, anomaly detection, and pattern recognition.

  • Text data: In natural language processing applications like language modeling, sentiment analysis, and machine translation.

  • Audio data: For speech recognition, speaker identification, and sound classification tasks.

Advantages of Recurrent Neural Network (RNN)

RNNs offer several advantages over traditional neural networks:

Sequential Information Capture:

RNNs excel at capturing the sequential dependencies present in input data. This capability is particularly beneficial in tasks where the order of input elements matters, such as natural language processing. For instance, in a Many-to-Many Seq2Seq model, the output at each time step depends not only on the current input but also on previous inputs, allowing RNNs to model complex relationships effectively.

Deep learning - RNN (Sequential Information Capture)

Parameter Sharing:

RNNs leverage parameter sharing across different time steps, resulting in fewer parameters to train and reduced computational costs. This characteristic is particularly evident in unrolled RNNs, where weight matrices are shared across all time steps, minimizing redundancy and optimizing efficiency.

Deep learning - RNN (Parameter Sharing)

Unrolled RNN

Challenges with Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN)

Despite their advantages, RNNs encounter challenges, including:

vanishing and Exploding Gradient:

Deep RNNs with a large number of time steps are susceptible to the vanishing and exploding gradient problem. This issue arises during backpropagation, where gradients either diminish or explode as they propagate backward through time.

Deep learning - Vanishing Gradient

Vanishing Gradient (RNN)

Vanishing gradients impede learning by making earlier time steps less influential, while exploding gradients can lead to unstable training dynamics.

While RNNs offer significant advantages in capturing sequential information and parameter efficiency, they are not immune to challenges like the vanishing and exploding gradient problem. However, by understanding these limitations and exploring mitigation strategies, such as gradient clipping and alternative architectures like Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) and Gated Recurrent Unit (GRU), practitioners can harness the full potential of RNNs in a wide range of applications.

Convolution Neural Network (CNN)

Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) have emerged as a cornerstone of deep learning, particularly renowned for their efficacy in image and video processing applications. CNN models have garnered widespread adoption across various domains, owing to their remarkable performance and versatility.

Fundamentals of CNNs: Filters and Convolutions

At the core of CNNs lie filters, also known as kernels, which play a pivotal role in extracting relevant features from input data through the convolution operation. When an image is convolved with these filters, it results in the generation of a feature map, which highlights significant spatial patterns and structures within the image.

Significance of Filters

Consider the importance of filters illustrated through the convolution operation:

Deep learning - CNN

Output of Convolution

The convolution operation, facilitated by filters, enables CNNs to discern intricate patterns and features within input data, ultimately facilitating robust feature extraction.

Applications and Versatility

While CNNs were initially developed to address image-related challenges, their utility extends beyond just images. CNNs demonstrate impressive performance on sequential inputs as well, showcasing their versatility and applicability across diverse domains.

Advantages of Convolution Neural Network (CNN)

CNNs offer several advantages that contribute to their widespread adoption and success:

Automatic Feature Learning: CNNs possess the capability to automatically learn relevant filters from the data without explicit specification. This enables them to extract pertinent features crucial for task performance, eliminating the need for manual feature engineering.

Capture of Spatial Features: CNNs excel at capturing spatial features inherent in images, such as the arrangement of pixels and their interrelationships. These spatial features play a vital role in accurate object identification, localization, and understanding of object relationships within an image.

Deep learning - CNN 2

CNN – Image Classification

Parameter Sharing: CNNs leverage the concept of parameter sharing, where a single filter is applied across different regions of an input to generate a feature map. This approach optimizes computational efficiency and promotes feature reuse, enhancing the network's effectiveness.

Deep learning CNN

Convolving image with a filter

Convolutional Neural Networks represent a paradigm shift in deep learning, offering unparalleled capabilities in feature extraction and pattern recognition. Their versatility, automatic feature learning, ability to capture spatial features, and parameter sharing mechanism underscore their significance across a myriad of applications. As CNNs continue to evolve, they are poised to revolutionize various fields, driving innovation and advancing the boundaries of artificial intelligence.

Comparing the Different Types of Neural Networks (MLP(ANN) vs. RNN vs. CNN)

Neural networks come in various architectures, each designed for specific tasks and data types. Let's explore the key differences among Multilayer Perceptron (MLP) or Artificial Neural Network (ANN), Recurrent Neural Network (RNN), and Convolutional Neural Network (CNN):

Deep learning - ANN vs RNN vs CNN


  • MLP (ANN): Comprises input, hidden, and output layers where each neuron in one layer is connected to every neuron in the subsequent layer, allowing for the processing of tabular data.

  • RNN: Features recurrent connections, allowing information to persist over time, making it suitable for sequential data such as time series, text, and speech.

  • CNN: Employs convolutions and pooling operations to extract spatial hierarchies in data, making it highly effective for image and video processing tasks.

Data Types and Applications:

  • MLP (ANN): Ideal for structured data like tabular datasets, suitable for tasks such as regression and classification.

  • RNN: Suited for sequential data like time series, text, and audio, making it applicable in tasks such as language modeling, sentiment analysis, and speech recognition.

  • CNN: Primarily used for image and video data, excelling in tasks such as image classification, object detection, and segmentation.

Learning Capability:

  • MLP (ANN): Learns explicit feature representations from input data, relying on feature engineering for optimal performance.

  • RNN: Captures sequential dependencies in data inherently, learning patterns over time through recurrent connections.

  • CNN: Automatically learns hierarchical feature representations from raw data, leveraging convolutional and pooling layers for feature extraction.

Parameter Sharing:

  • MLP (ANN): Parameters are not shared across different parts of the network.

  • RNN: Shares parameters across time steps, allowing for efficient processing of sequential data.

  • CNN: Implements parameter sharing across spatial dimensions, enabling the detection of features regardless of their location in an image.

Spatial vs. Temporal Features:

  • MLP (ANN): Focuses on learning global patterns in data, without considering spatial or temporal relationships.

  • RNN: Captures temporal dependencies in sequential data, recognizing patterns and sequences over time.

  • CNN: Excels at capturing spatial features in images, understanding the arrangement of pixels and detecting patterns within local regions.

The choice of neural network architecture depends on the nature of the data and the specific task at hand. MLPs are suitable for structured data, RNNs for sequential data, and CNNs for image and video processing tasks. Understanding these differences enables practitioners to select the most appropriate model for their machine learning and deep learning endeavors.


Throughout this article, we've delved into the pivotal role of deep learning and explored the distinctions among various types of neural networks. It's been a journey uncovering the intricacies of Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs), Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs), and Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs), each offering unique capabilities and applications in the realm of artificial intelligence.

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