In Machine Learning, you deal with softmax and sigimoid functions often. I wanted to provide some intuition when you should one, over the other.

Suppose you have predictions as the output from neural net.


These are the predictions for cat, dog, cow, and zebra. They can be positive or negative (no ReLU at the end).


If we plan to find exactly one value we should use softmax function. The character of this function is “there can be only one”.

Note the out values are in the B column. Then for each B value $x$ we do create $e^x$ in column C.

What the exp function do it will do:

  • it will make the predictions positive
  • what ever was max, it will stand out as max

The softmax funciton:

Can be literally expressed as take the exponent value and divide it by the sum of all other exponents (~34 in the image). This will make one important feature of softmax, that the sum off all softmax values will add to 1.

Just by peaking the max value after the softmax we get out prediction. It is that easy, or the index of the prediction.


Things are different for the sigmoid function. This function can provide us with the top $n$ results based on the threshold.

If the threshold is e.g. 3 from the image you can find two results greater than that number. We use the following formula to evaluate the sigmoid function.

Exactly, the feature of sigmoid is to emphasize multiple values, based on the threshold, and we use it for the multi-label classification problems.

And in PyTorch…

In PyTorch you would use the torch.nn.Softmax(dim=None) layer compute softmax to an n-dimensional input tensor rescaling them so that the elements of the n-dimensional output tensor lie in the range [0,1] and sum to 1.

import torch.nn as nn
m = nn.Softmax(dim=0)
inp = torch.randn(2, 3)*2-1

out = m(inp)

# tensor([[-1.2928, -2.9990, -1.8886],
#         [ 0.1079, -3.6320, -1.6835]])
# tensor([[0.1977, 0.6532, 0.4489],
#         [0.8023, 0.3468, 0.5511]])
# tensor(3.)

Note you need to specify the dimension for softmax, which is dim=0 in the previous example (dimension of columns). This is why the total sum will add to 3. since we have three columns.

But we can also functional version of softmax. The previous example can be rewritten as:

import torch.nn.functional as F
inp = torch.randn(2, 3)*2-1
out = F.softmax(inp, dim=0)

# tensor([[ 0.9096, -2.5876, -2.2403],
#         [-0.8566,  0.2757, -1.9268]])
# tensor([[0.8540, 0.0540, 0.4223],
#         [0.1460, 0.9460, 0.5777]])
# tensor(3.)

There is also a special 2d softmax that works on 4D tensors only, but you can always rewrite it using the regular F.softmax.

m = nn.Softmax2d()
inp = torch.randn(1, 3, 2, 2)
out = m(inp)
out2 = F.softmax(inp, dim=1)

print(torch.equal(out, out2)) #True

For the sigmoid function the things are quite clear.

inp = torch.randn(1,5)
# tensor([[-0.4010,  0.0468, -0.4071,  0.6252,  1.0899]])
# tensor([[0.4011, 0.5117, 0.3996, 0.6514, 0.7484]])