Decoding Transformers' Superiority over RNNs in NLP Tasksby@artemborin
2,864 reads
2,864 reads

Decoding Transformers' Superiority over RNNs in NLP Tasks

by ArtemJune 28th, 2023
Read on Terminal Reader
Read this story w/o Javascript
tldt arrow

Too Long; Didn't Read

Despite Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) designed to mirror certain aspects of human cognition, they've been surpassed by Transformers in Natural Language Processing tasks. The primary reasons include RNNs' issues with the vanishing gradient problem, difficulty in capturing long-range dependencies, and training inefficiencies. The hypothesis that larger RNNs could mitigate these issues falls short in practice due to computational inefficiencies and memory constraints. On the other hand, Transformers leverage their parallel processing ability and self-attention mechanism to efficiently handle sequences and train larger models. Thus, the evolution of AI architectures is driven not only by biological plausibility but also by practical considerations such as computational efficiency and scalability.
featured image - Decoding Transformers' Superiority over RNNs in NLP Tasks
Artem HackerNoon profile picture

In the realm of artificial intelligence, one of the main goals is to make computers understand and use language just like the human brain does. There have been numerous breakthroughs on this path, and one of them is the focus on Natural Language Processing (NLP), a key part of AI that centers on helping computers and humans interact using everyday language. Over the years of NLP’s history, we have witnessed a shift from Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) to Transformer models.

The move to Transformers wasn't random. RNNs, created to process information similar to how we think, had a few issues. They struggled with the vanishing gradient problem, had a hard time understanding long-term dependencies, and their training was not very efficient. These issues paved the path for Transformers.

But why Transformers? One might think that if RNNs were larger, they could handle problems like the vanishing gradients, potentially performing as well or even better than the alternative. But in reality, Transformers have consistently outperformed RNNs in many NLP tasks, despite not mirroring human cognition as closely as them.

Below, we'll look deeper into this phenomenon. Why did Transformers outdo RNNs, even though RNNs are designed more like humans? Can larger RNNs bridge this performance gap, or would they cause more problems? We hope to shed some light on this key stage in the journey of NLP — the triumph of Transformers over RNNs.

Section 1: Understanding RNNs and their similarity to human thought

1.1 RNNs explained

Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) have been key to many early advances in NLP. They were designed with a unique concept: to keep a form of memory. RNNs process sequences step by step, maintaining a hidden state from previous steps to inform the current output. This sequential processing makes RNNs a natural choice for tasks involving sequences such as language modeling, where the order of words is important.

1.2 The shortcomings of RNNs

Even though RNNs are designed like human sequence processing, they have some limitations. A major issue with RNNs is the vanishing gradient problem. During training, as the model passes errors from the output layer back to the input layer, the gradients often become very small. This means the weights of the early layers barely update, making it hard for the model to learn long-range dependencies — a key aspect of language understanding.

Also, RNNs are not very efficient in terms of computation. Because they process input sequences one step at a time, they can't fully use parallel computing — a common way to speed up neural network training.

Section 2: Introducing Transformers and their Advantages

2.1 What are Transformers?

Transformers revolutionized the field of NLP when they were introduced in the seminal paper "Attention is All You Need" by Vaswani et al. (2017). Unlike RNNs, Transformers operate on entire sequences of data simultaneously. This means that they can compute the representation of a word in the context of all other words in the sequence at once, rather than one by one in a series.

2.2 How Transformers handle sequences

The main feature of the Transformer design is its self-attention mechanism. Self-attention lets the model consider the importance of each word in a sequence when it's processing another word. This mechanism isn't affected by how far apart words are, which lets Transformers handle long sequences effectively. Plus, transformers use parallel computing resources more efficiently during training, since a causal self-attention mechanism allows to generate predictions for all elements of the sequence at the same time.

2.3 Advantages over RNNs

Transformers solve the vanishing gradient problem that hampers RNNs. With their parallel nature and no recurrent connections, gradients can flow straight through the network during backpropagation, reducing the risk of vanishing. When it comes to training, being able to process all tokens in the sequence at once allows Transformers to make the most of modern GPU setups, which are built for parallel computations. This results in quicker training times and allows for much larger models to be trained. Moreover, the self-attention mechanism gives Transformers the unique ability to focus on different parts of the input sequence, no matter how far apart. This lets them better model complex patterns and long sequences, which are crucial for many NLP tasks. While Transformers have clear benefits, it's worth asking if making RNNs larger could even add things up.

Section 3: The Potential of Bigger RNNs

3.1 Could Larger RNNs solve the vanishing gradient issue?

As we've mentioned before, RNNs face a big issue: the vanishing gradient problem. But an interesting question arises: can we solve this by simply making RNNs bigger? In theory, larger RNNs, with more neurons and layers, could learn more complex patterns and potentially lessen the vanishing gradient issue. Although it might seem like simply making the model bigger could close the gap, the reality isn't that straightforward.

3.2 Problems with efficiency and training larger RNNs

The main issue with larger RNNs is their sequential nature, which forces them to process one token at a time. This makes them less efficient for training, as the potential for parallel computing is only limited to the batch dimension. Unlike Transformers, RNNs can't make full use of modern GPUs, which are designed to do lots of computations at once. Plus, there's a limit to how much you can increase the batch size due to memory constraints on GPUs. Bigger models require more memory, which limits how much you can increase the batch size. On top of that, training with large batches can create other challenges, like a drop in model quality due to fewer updates or trouble keeping the learning process stable. So, while making RNNs bigger might seem like a good way to match Transformers' performance, it comes with significant practical issues related to efficiency and training.

Section 4: Efficiency vs. Mimicry — finding the balance

4.1 The efficiency of Transformers

A big reason for Transformers' success in NLP comes down to their efficiency. Transformers' ability to process in parallel lets them use modern GPU setups to the max, leading to faster training times and the ability to train much bigger models. This, combined with their ability to handle long sequences effectively due to their self-attention mechanism, makes Transformers a top choice for many large-scale NLP tasks.

4.2 RNNs' human-like sequence processing

Going back to the idea that RNNs mimic a part of how we think, it's worth asking if there's potential in this approach. RNNs' strength lies in their design—they can remember past inputs and use that memory when processing current and future inputs, similar to how we converse or read. This trait could capture the flow of ideas in language, holding potential for applications where such sequential understanding is key. The power of RNNs, then, lies in this potential to replicate this aspect of how we think, despite the practical limitations we've discussed.

4.3 Balancing act

Now we have to consider a balance between Transformers' efficiency and scalability and RNNs' human-like sequence processing. Even though RNNs might mimic some aspects of how we think, Transformers' efficiency, parallel processing, and scalability make them more suited for NLP tasks. This shows a broader trend in machine learning and AI: it's not just biological plausibility that shapes architectures, but also practical aspects like computational efficiency and scalability.

That's not to say RNNs are unnecessary or not valuable. In smaller applications, where you're not as worried about training efficiency and scalability, RNNs might still work. But when dealing with big data where scale is crucial, Transformers come out on top.


In this article, we've explored the interesting journey from Recurrent Neural Networks to Transformers in the field of Natural Language Processing. This shift reflects a key principle in AI: while biological plausibility provides a useful guide, computational efficiency and scalability often steer the direction of practical development.

RNNs, built to mirror the human process of retaining past information, certainly have their advantages. However, they struggle with significant issues like the vanishing gradient problem and training inefficiencies, especially when dealing with larger models. Transformers, even though they don't mimic human thinking as closely, have shown impressive success in a wide range of NLP tasks.

A big part of their success comes from their ability to process whole sequences at once, effectively using the power of modern GPUs and avoiding the problems of sequential processing. Their self-attention mechanism also lets them skillfully handle long sequences, overcoming another RNN limitation.

Even though Transformers are clearly the winners in today's large-scale NLP world, this doesn't rule out the potential of RNNs in certain applications, especially where efficiency and scalability aren't as important. It also doesn't stop the ongoing search for architectures that can combine the practical benefits of Transformers with more human-like sequence processing.

As we look to the future, the challenge is to keep developing and improving models that balance biological plausibility, computational efficiency, and task performance. This careful balancing act, as we aim for AI that's more like humans, is what makes the journey of NLP an exciting, ever-changing adventure.

The lead image for this article was generated by HackerNoon's AI Image Generator via the prompt "Natural-language-Processing Transformers".