Why deep neural networks for function approximation?

Shiyu Liang, R. Srikant

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Recently there has been much interest in understanding why deep neural networks are preferred to shallow networks. We show that, for a large class of piecewise smooth functions, the number of neurons needed by a shallow network to approximate a function is exponentially larger than the corresponding number of neurons needed by a deep network for a given degree of function approximation. First, we consider univariate functions on a bounded interval and require a neural network to achieve an approximation error of e uniformly over the interval. We show that shallow networks (i.e., networks whose depth does not depend on ε) require Ω(poly(1/e)) neurons while deep networks (i.e., networks whose depth grows with 1/e) require O(polylog(1/e)) neurons. We then extend these results to certain classes of important multivariate functions. Our results are derived for neural networks which use a combination of rectifier linear units (ReLUs) and binary step units, two of the most popular type of activation functions. Our analysis builds on a simple observation: the multiplication of two bits can be represented by a ReLU.

Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes
Event5th International Conference on Learning Representations, ICLR 2017 - Toulon, France
Duration: Apr 24 2017Apr 26 2017


Conference5th International Conference on Learning Representations, ICLR 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics


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