Transformer Architecture In A Nutshell

The transformer architecture – sometimes referred to as the transformer neural network or transformer model – is an architecture that endeavors to solve sequence-to-sequence tasks while easily handling long-range dependencies.

IntroductionThe Transformer architecture is a pivotal development in the field of deep learning and natural language processing (NLP). It introduced a novel approach to sequence-to-sequence tasks and language understanding that has revolutionized many areas of artificial intelligence. Understanding the Transformer architecture, its core components, and its impact on NLP is crucial for researchers, developers, and anyone interested in machine learning.
Key ConceptsAttention Mechanism: The Transformer’s core innovation is the self-attention mechanism, which allows it to weigh the importance of different parts of an input sequence when processing it. This mechanism enables better context understanding and parallelism.
Multi-Head Attention: Transformers often use multiple attention heads, each focusing on different aspects of the input sequence, making them highly expressive and adaptable.
Positional Encoding: Transformers lack the inherent notion of order in sequences, so positional encodings are added to input embeddings to provide the model with positional information.
Encoder-Decoder Architecture: Transformers are commonly structured as encoder-decoder models for tasks like machine translation. The encoder processes the input, and the decoder generates the output.
Scaled Dot-Product Attention: This is the core attention mechanism in Transformers, efficiently calculating attention scores using dot products and scaling to mitigate issues with large values.
How Transformer WorksThe Transformer architecture operates through several key steps:
Input Embedding: Input sequences are embedded into high-dimensional vectors that serve as the model’s initial representation of the data.
Positional Encoding: Positional encoding is added to the input embeddings to provide information about the order of tokens in the sequence.
Encoder and Decoder Stacks: The model consists of multiple layers of encoders and decoders, each containing attention mechanisms and feedforward neural networks.
Self-Attention: During each layer, self-attention mechanisms compute attention scores for each token based on all other tokens in the sequence, capturing contextual relationships.
Multi-Head Attention: Multi-head attention combines the outputs of multiple attention heads, allowing the model to focus on different aspects of the input sequence.
Position-Wise Feedforward Networks: After attention mechanisms, feedforward neural networks process the output at each position independently.
Residual Connections: Residual connections and layer normalization are used to stabilize training and improve gradient flow through the model.
Encoder-Decoder Interaction: In tasks like machine translation, information from the encoder is passed to the decoder to generate the target sequence.
Output Layer: The final output layer produces the model’s predictions, often using softmax for classification tasks.
ApplicationsThe Transformer architecture has had a profound impact on various NLP and machine learning applications:
Machine Translation: Transformers, such as the original “Transformer” model and subsequent variants like BERT and GPT, have significantly improved machine translation quality.
Text Generation: Models like GPT-3 and GPT-4 have demonstrated exceptional text generation capabilities, leading to applications in chatbots, content generation, and creative writing.
Question Answering: Transformers are used in question-answering systems, allowing them to understand context and provide accurate answers.
Summarization: Transformers excel in text summarization tasks, automatically generating concise summaries of longer documents.
Speech Recognition: Transformers have shown promise in speech recognition, enabling more accurate and context-aware transcription systems.
Challenges and ConsiderationsWhile powerful, the Transformer architecture has challenges and considerations:
Computational Demands: Transformers require significant computational resources, making large models expensive to train and deploy.
Data Requirements: Training effective Transformer models often demands large and diverse datasets.
Interpretability: Understanding the decisions made by Transformer models can be challenging due to their complexity.
Fine-Tuning: Fine-tuning large pre-trained models for specific tasks can be challenging and requires careful consideration.
Future TrendsThe future of Transformers in machine learning includes:
Efficiency: Research focuses on creating more efficient Transformer architectures that maintain performance while reducing computational demands.
Multimodal Applications: Transformers are being adapted for multimodal tasks that involve multiple data types, such as text, images, and audio.
Transfer Learning: Transfer learning techniques, where pre-trained models are fine-tuned for specific tasks, continue to evolve.
Ethical AI: Addressing ethical concerns and biases in Transformer models is crucial for responsible AI development.
ConclusionThe Transformer architecture has fundamentally reshaped the landscape of NLP and deep learning. Its self-attention mechanisms, multi-head attention, and encoder-decoder structure have enabled significant advances in various language-related tasks. While challenges like computational demands and interpretability persist, ongoing research and development in the field are making Transformers more efficient and adaptable. Understanding the Transformer architecture’s principles and applications is essential for staying at the forefront of machine learning and natural language processing.

Understanding the transformer architecture

The transformer architecture was first proposed by a team of Google researchers in a 2017 paper titled Attention Is All You Need. These models are among the most powerful invented to date and are responsible for a wave of innovation in machine learning. 

Indeed, in 2021, Stanford University academics believed transformers (which they called foundation models) had driven a paradigm shift in AI such that the “sheer scale and scope of foundation models over the last few years have stretched our imagination of what is possible.

The transformer architecture is comprised of a neural network that understands context and meaning by analyzing relationships in sequential data. In the case of natural language processing (NLP), these data are the words in a sentence. 

The architecture adopts an encoder-decoder structure. The encoder on the left-hand side of the architecture extracts features from an input sequence, while the decoder on the right uses those features to produce the output sequence.

Note that each step in a transformer model is auto-regressive. This means the previously generated labels are used as additional input to generate subsequent labels.

The evolution of NLP models

Machine learning models that process text must not only compute every word but also determine how the words assemble to form a coherent text. Before transformers, complex recurrent neural networks (RNNs) were the default NLP processors.

RNNs process the first word and then feed it back into the layer that processes the next word. While this method enables the model to keep track of the sentence, it is inefficient and too slow to take advantage of powerful GPUs used for training and inference. 

RNNs are also ill-suited to long sequences of text. As the model wades deeper into an excerpt, the effect of the first words in the sentence fades. This is known as the vanishing gradient effect and is especially pronounced when two linked (related) words in a sentence are far apart.

The evolution of RNNs

To detect the subtle ways in which distant words influence and depend on each other in sentences, the transformer architecture utilizes a series of mathematical techniques called self-attention. These so-called “attention mechanisms” make it possible for transformers to track word relations across very long text sequences in both forward and reverse.

Importantly, transformers can also process data sequences in parallel. This enables the speed and capacity of sequential deep learning models to be scaled at rates believed to be impossible just a few years back. Today, around 70% of the AI papers published in Cornell University’s arXiv repository mention transformer models.

Where are transformer architectures used?

Transformer architectures can process speech and text in near real-time and are the foundations of OpenAI’s popular GPT-2 and GPT-3 models. Google and similar platforms also utilize them for user search queries.

Since their introduction in 2017, several transformer variants have emerged and branched out into other industries. Transformers are a critical component of DeepMind’s AlphaFold, a protein structure prediction model used to speed up the therapeutic drug design process.

OpenAI’s source-code generation model Codex is also underpinned by a transformer architecture and they have also replaced convolutional neural networks (CNNs) in the AI field of computer vision.

A more detailed look at how transformers came to exist

Before we take a look at the story behind transformers, it is important to mention that they were initially conceived to solve the problem of neural machine translation. 

Also known as sequence transduction, neural machine translation describes any task where an input sequence is translated into an output sequence. However, for a transformer to perform this translation, it must possess some form of memory. 

Let’s assume that we want to translate the following sentence into Spanish: “Apple is an American multinational tech company headquartered in San Francisco, California. The company was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne.

In the above, the word “company” in the second sentence refers to the company “Apple” from the first sentence. When a human reads the word “company” in the second sentence, they intuitively understand that it references Apple.

For a machine translation task, however, the model needs to know the context in which use the word “company” is used. In other words, it needs to determine the dependencies and connections between words in different sentences.

To describe how transformers solve this problem, we first need to back up a little and describe the limitations of the predecessors to transformers.

How RNNs consider context

Recurrent neural networks incorporate loops to enable information to persist and be passed from one step to the next. All the while, each part of the network processes some input and then some output.

As the name implies, recurrent neural networks can be thought of as multiple copies of the same network. One part of the network passes a message to the next part, with each part arranged in a chain-like fashion.

With each part of an RNN arranged in this way, it is easier to appreciate how it relates to sequences and lists. If we wanted to translate the above text into Spanish, for example, it would be prudent to set each input as a word. 

The problem with RNNs

However, problems arise when a model needs to predict words based on previous ones. 

If we consider the phrase “The dog has four legs”, the model does not need further context because it is obvious that the word after “four” will be “legs”. 

When the difference between relevant information and the place it is required is small, RNNs can learn context from past information to determine the next word in a sequence. 

But if the distance between the two is large, RNNs become ineffective. That is, when information that is required to establish context is too far back in the text, the likelihood of the information being lost somewhere on the chain increases.

Consider the phrase “I grew up in Spain, and I speak fluent…“. Information may suggest to an RNN that the next word is a language of some sort, but to understand which language, it needs the context of Spain. If this information is too far back on the chain, the model cannot determine the correct language. 

The concept of attention

To solve this problem, researchers developed a technique where models would pay attention to specific words. In short, attention enables neural networks to focus on part of a subset of input information.

In the case of attention in an RNN, every word has a hidden state that is passed to the decoding stage and each state is present in each step of the network. Without attention, the RNN encodes the whole sentence in a hidden state. 

The idea behind this approach is that there may be relevant contextual information present in each word in a sentence. As a result, models take into account every word in the input via attention.

With this problem solved, convolutional neural networks (CNNs) were later introduced to enable inputs to be processed in parallel and increase processing speed. To do this, CNNs process each input word at the same time and do not necessarily require knowledge of previous words to translate a sentence.

Transformers and self-attention

However, while CNNs were faster and could exploit local dependencies, they still struggled with dependency during translation.

This final problem was solved by transformers, which can be thought of as a convolutional neural network with attention. Transformers solve problems by using attention models with encoders and decoders, with attention itself able to increase the speed with which a model can translate from one sequence to the next. 

While transformers have a similar architecture to RNNs and CNNs, they incorporate six encoders and six decoders. Each encoder has a similar architecture and consists of two layers: self-attention and a feed-forward neural network.

The self-attention process

Input from an encoder first travels via the self-attention layer, which allows the encoder to look at other words in a sentence while it encodes the word in question. 

Decoders also incorporate the same two layers with an attention layer in between that helps them focus on parts of the input sentence that are relevant. 

One of the key properties of the transformer is that each word in a sequence travels via its own path in the encoder. Dependencies exist in the self-attention layer, but they do not exist in the feed-forward layer. In essence, this enables the various paths to be executed in parallel.

Key takeaways:

  • The transformer architecture is an architecture that endeavors to solve sequence-to-sequence tasks while easily handling long-range dependencies.
  • Machine learning models that process text must not only compute every word but also determine how the words assemble to form a coherent text. Before transformers, complex recurrent neural networks (RNNs) were the default NLP processors. But RNNs are inefficient and too slow to benefit from powerful GPUs.
  • Transformers can take advantage of GPUs and process data sequences in parallel. This enables deep learning models to be scaled at rates that have made them useful in other applications such as medical research, source-code generation, and computer vision.

Key Highlights

  • Introduction to Transformer Architecture:
    • A revolutionary neural network design for sequence-to-sequence tasks and long-range dependency handling.
  • Origins and Significance:
    • Proposed by Google researchers in 2017, driving innovation in machine learning.
    • Stanford University acknowledges its paradigm-shifting impact on AI.
  • Neural Network Structure:
    • Comprises encoder-decoder structure.
    • Encoder extracts input features, decoder generates output based on features.
  • Auto-Regressive Steps:
    • Each step in transformer model is auto-regressive.
    • Previous labels guide generation of subsequent labels.
  • Evolution from RNNs:
    • Recurrent neural networks (RNNs) used for NLP previously.
    • RNNs inefficient and struggled with long sequences and dependencies.
  • Inefficiency of RNNs:
    • RNNs processed one word at a time.
    • Slowdowns on powerful GPUs.
    • Vanishing gradient effect hindered long-range context understanding.
  • Rise of Self-Attention:
    • Transformer architecture employs self-attention mechanisms.
    • Tracks relationships between distant words.
    • Enables context understanding across long sequences.
  • Parallel Processing and Speed:
    • Transformers process sequences in parallel.
    • Effective GPU utilization.
    • Revolutionized AI applications beyond NLP.
  • Applications in AI:
    • Integral to OpenAI’s GPT-2 and GPT-3 models.
    • Enhance real-time speech and text processing.
    • Used in Google and other platforms for user search queries.
  • Extended Applications:
    • Fundamental to DeepMind’s AlphaFold for protein structure prediction.
    • Key in OpenAI’s Codex for source-code generation.
  • Architectural Roots:
    • Initially conceived for neural machine translation.
    • Addresses dependencies between words in different sentences.
  • Contextual Memory in Translation:
    • Transformers must understand context dependencies for effective translation.
  • RNN Limitations:
    • Sequential processing of RNNs causes loss of information with longer dependencies.
  • Attention Mechanisms:
    • Attention improves context understanding by focusing on specific words.
  • CNNs and Parallel Processing:
    • Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) introduced parallel processing.
    • Struggled with long-range dependencies.
  • Transformer Solution:
    • Combines convolutional and self-attention mechanisms.
    • Utilizes encoders and decoders to address dependencies.
  • Parallel Paths and Efficiency:
    • Each word in sequence takes its own path in encoder.
    • Enables parallel execution of various paths.
  • Benefits of Transformers:
    • Parallel processing and scalability.
    • Broad applications beyond NLP.
    • Crucial in modern AI advancements.

Connected AI Concepts


Generalized AI consists of devices or systems that can handle all sorts of tasks on their own. The extension of generalized AI eventually led to the development of Machine learning. As an extension to AI, Machine Learning (ML) analyzes a series of computer algorithms to create a program that automates actions. Without explicitly programming actions, systems can learn and improve the overall experience. It explores large sets of data to find common patterns and formulate analytical models through learning.

Deep Learning vs. Machine Learning

Machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence where algorithms parse data, learn from experience, and make better decisions in the future. Deep learning is a subset of machine learning where numerous algorithms are structured into layers to create artificial neural networks (ANNs). These networks can solve complex problems and allow the machine to train itself to perform a task.


DevOps refers to a series of practices performed to perform automated software development processes. It is a conjugation of the term “development” and “operations” to emphasize how functions integrate across IT teams. DevOps strategies promote seamless building, testing, and deployment of products. It aims to bridge a gap between development and operations teams to streamline the development altogether.


AIOps is the application of artificial intelligence to IT operations. It has become particularly useful for modern IT management in hybridized, distributed, and dynamic environments. AIOps has become a key operational component of modern digital-based organizations, built around software and algorithms.

Machine Learning Ops

Machine Learning Ops (MLOps) describes a suite of best practices that successfully help a business run artificial intelligence. It consists of the skills, workflows, and processes to create, run, and maintain machine learning models to help various operational processes within organizations.

OpenAI Organizational Structure

OpenAI is an artificial intelligence research laboratory that transitioned into a for-profit organization in 2019. The corporate structure is organized around two entities: OpenAI, Inc., which is a single-member Delaware LLC controlled by OpenAI non-profit, And OpenAI LP, which is a capped, for-profit organization. The OpenAI LP is governed by the board of OpenAI, Inc (the foundation), which acts as a General Partner. At the same time, Limited Partners comprise employees of the LP, some of the board members, and other investors like Reid Hoffman’s charitable foundation, Khosla Ventures, and Microsoft, the leading investor in the LP.

OpenAI Business Model

OpenAI has built the foundational layer of the AI industry. With large generative models like GPT-3 and DALL-E, OpenAI offers API access to businesses that want to develop applications on top of its foundational models while being able to plug these models into their products and customize these models with proprietary data and additional AI features. On the other hand, OpenAI also released ChatGPT, developing around a freemium model. Microsoft also commercializes opener products through its commercial partnership.


OpenAI and Microsoft partnered up from a commercial standpoint. The history of the partnership started in 2016 and consolidated in 2019, with Microsoft investing a billion dollars into the partnership. It’s now taking a leap forward, with Microsoft in talks to put $10 billion into this partnership. Microsoft, through OpenAI, is developing its Azure AI Supercomputer while enhancing its Azure Enterprise Platform and integrating OpenAI’s models into its business and consumer products (GitHub, Office, Bing).

Stability AI Business Model

Stability AI is the entity behind Stable Diffusion. Stability makes money from our AI products and from providing AI consulting services to businesses. Stability AI monetizes Stable Diffusion via DreamStudio’s APIs. While it also releases it open-source for anyone to download and use. Stability AI also makes money via enterprise services, where its core development team offers the chance to enterprise customers to service, scale, and customize Stable Diffusion or other large generative models to their needs.

Stability AI Ecosystem


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