Capsule Networks - An Enhancement to Convolutional Neural Networks

December 10, 2020

The key ideas behind Capsule Networks (CapsNets) were introduced in 2011 by Geoffrey E. Hinton in a research paper called Transforming Autoencoders. Although, he did have a difficult time making the network work properly.


Understanding how Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) work is key to understanding Capsule Networks as it improves on CNNs. If you are not familiar with how CNN’s work, please feel free to read my previous article on the basics of CNNs.

Table of contents

  1. The Orientation Problem in Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs)

  2. The Pooling problem in CNNs

  3. What are Capsules in Capsule Networks (CapsNet)?

  4. What are Capsule Networks (CapsNet)?

  5. The CapsNet Architecture

  6. Key Takeaways


In 2017, Geoffrey E. Hinton, alongside Sara Sabour and Nicholas Frosst, published a paper called Dynamic Routing Between Capsules. The three researchers built on the key ideas first published in 2011, and achieved state-of-the-art performance on the MNIST dataset, and demonstrated better results than Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) on highly overlapping digits. They also tested the capsule model on the CIFAR10 dataset, and it achieved a 10.6% error, which is not state-of-the-art, but it’s a good start.

The orientation problem in Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs)

Convolutional Neural Networks have been used in the Computer Vision domain for several years now. These networks have produced state-of-the-art results when solving image classification, image segmentation, and object detection tasks. Yet, these networks are not perfect. CNN’s tend to fail when they are fed with images that differ in orientation and sizes.

Let’s look at an example to understand what I mean. Suppose I take an original image of a dog and flip it upside down, as shown below.

Original image of a dog

Flipped image of the original

If we train the CNN on the original image and then feed in the dog’s flipped image as the new input to the CNN, it will fail to identify the dog’s features such as the eyes, nose, and mouth. This means that CNNs fail to learn the patterns of an image when its orientation is altered.

The pooling problem in CNNs

In CNN’s, we have the pooling operation. This operation’s function is meant to reduce input data dimensions from a high dimension to a low dimension.

This layer is applied to each convolution layer, and it takes the most active neurons and continues to pass them through the network. While at the same time the less active neurons are dropped, getting rid of important information that might tell us more about other critical spatial features in the network.

Geoffrey E. Hinton considers this a disaster. In one of his lectures, he is quoted saying:

“The pooling operation used in Convolution Neural Networks is a big mistake, and the fact that it works so well is a disaster.”

He says that computers can probably use this data that is being discarded to detect the relationship between the eyes and the nose and the distance between it.

So, how do we solve this problem?

This is where Capsule Networks (CapsNet) come into play.

What are Capsules in Capsule Networks (CapsNet)?

Before we understand what a CapsNet is, let’s first understand what a capsule is.

A capsule is a collection of neurons that learn to detect an object or parts of an object in an image. Its output is a vector whose length represents the existence of an entity being present in an image.

The length of the vector acts as a confidence score. The vectors with longer lengths give a higher confidence score that the entity exists in the image, while those with shorter lengths give lower confident scores.

The vector’s length guides the network on which capsules to pick to forward to a higher capsule where more processing will be done. The vector orientation describes instantiation parameters such as the object’s rotation, size, or its exact location in an image.

A slight adjustment to the object’s rotation or its size, can change the vector’s orientation with proportion to its input, but its length will remain the same.

Below is an example of an output that denotes an object’s location in a CapsNet. The vectors’ length where the object is placed is longer than those of the vectors where the object isn’t placed. The vectors’ orientation could represent their position, rotation, size, or scale in the image.

Example of a vector with length and orientation in a CapsNet

Image Source: Intel

I hope that’s clear. Let’s go over what a CapsNet is.

What are Capsule Networks (CapsNet)?

A CapsNet consists of capsules instead of neurons in its architecture. Unlike neurons, that outputs scalars with no direction, capsules outputs vectors that have a direction. T

his feature in capsules helps solve the orientation problem in CNNs. When the image’s orientation is changed, the vector’s direction will also move following that position.

In computer graphics, computers render images on screens by taking into account the internal representations of an object, such as its scale, rotation, and position. On the other hand, the human brain process images the opposite way; this process is known as inverse graphics.

We first identify an object, deconstruct it into different parts, and establish a relationship between these parts of an object. This is how we humans identify objects.

A CapsNet aims to borrow this idea of inverse graphics, which is the reverse process of how computers (usually) render images. Here, the network starts with an image; it tries to determine the objects it contains and its instantiation parameters such as pose (relative position, orientation, and size).

This is unlike CNNs, which ignore the spatial relationships between features.

To obtain a representation of the instantiation parameters:

  • We apply a couple of convolution layers, that outputs an array of feature maps.
  • This array is reshaped to obtain a set of vectors for each location.
  • The last process involves ensuring that no vector is longer than one. This process is achieved by applying a squashing function that squashes it to ensure its length is between 0 and 1.

One key feature of Capsule Networks is preserving detailed information about an object’s location and its pose throughout the network. This process is known as equivariance.

In CNN’s, we have several pooling layers. Researchers have found that these pooling layers tend to lose information, such as the objects’ precise location and pose.

Capsule Networks are equivariant, making them suitable for applications such as object detection and image segmentation.

CapsNet has four main components:

  1. Matrix Multiplication: This operation is performed on the input layer. We take an image that we want to convert into vector values to understand the spatial layout.

  2. Scalar weighting of the inputs: The inputs’ weights helps determine the direction where the current capsules should go in the next layer. It works alongside the third component mentioned below.

  3. Dynamic Routing Algorithm: The power of a CapsNet is realized through the Dynamic Routing algorithm. Its role is to facilitate communication between the Primary Capsule and the DigitCaps layer. A capsule (i) in the primary capsule layer (lower layer) needs to figure out how to send its output vector to the DigitCaps layer (higher-level capsule, j).

The algorithm computes a coupling coefficient ($$c_ij$$) to quantify the connection between the Primary Capsule and the DigitCaps layers. This coupling coefficient value is important as it facilitates the routing of capsules to the appropriate next layers, layers that only agree with its inputs.

However, this coefficient value is not permanent. It’s updated accordingly. Only three routing iterations is recommended to optimize the loss faster and to avoid the problem of overfitting. This is how the network continue to learn.

  1. Applying a non-linear function to condense the information: Unlike CNNs, where we use the ReLU function, we use the squashing (non-linear) function shown below to condense the information to a length of between 0 and 1.

The short vectors are squashed to an almost zero value, while the long vectors are squashed to a length of slightly less than one. Thus, the length of the output vector of a capsule denotes the probability of whether an entity is present in the current input.

Instead of adding the squashing function to each layer as in CNNs, the function is applied to a nested set of layers in a CapsNet.

It’s important to note that the squashing function preserves the vectors’ orientation, but it squashes it to ensure its length is between 0 and 1.

The paper introduces a new squashing (non-linearity) function shown below, that works best with capsules:

The squashing function used in ConvNets

Image Source: University of Toronto

The term $$v_j$$ refers to the output after applying the squashing function; the term $$s_j$$ refers to the previous step’s output.

The CapsNet architecture

The capsule network architecture contains an encoder and a decoder, with each component consisting of three layers.

A simple CapsNet with 3 layers

Image Source: University of Toronto

The encoder contains three layers:

  1. Convolution layer (Conv1): This layer has 256, 9x9 convolution kernels that slide with a stride of 1. The ReLU activation function is also used. This layer is responsible for converting pixel intensities to the activities of local feature detectors. These outputs are then fed as inputs to the primary capsule layer.

  2. Primary Capsule layer: This layer is a convolutional layer that contains 32 primary capsules, each capsule having the dimensions of 6 x 6 with shared weights. Thus, the total capsule output from this layer is 32 x 6 x 6. This layer is responsible for capturing entities at the lowest level. It performs the inverse rendering process mentioned earlier.

  3. DigitCaps layer: This layer contains one 6D capsule per digit class. Every single capsule receives its inputs from capsules in the layers below it. The output of this layer is then fed in as input to the decoder network.

A good point to note about the network’s encoder part is that there is no routing between Conv1 and the Primary Capsule layer. Routing only happens between the Primary Capsule and the DigitCaps Layer.

Decoder structure to reconstruct a digit from the DigitCaps layer representation

Image Source: University of Toronto

The decoder network aims to reconstruct MNIST digits from the DigitCaps layer representation. It reconstructs the MNIST digits by minimizing the Euclidean distance between the input image and the decoder’s output.

It contains three fully-connected (FC) layers:

  1. The first layer has a total of 512 neurons.
  2. The second layer has a total of 1024 neurons.
  3. The third layer is a sigmoid layer that contains 784 neurons, which correspond to the pixel intensities of the reconstructed image (28 X 28) for MNIST.

Key Takeaways

  • Capsule networks (CapsNet) work by adding structures (capsules) to a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN).

  • The Routing-By-Agreement algorithm replaces max-pooling, that performs routing by pooling. It’s more effective than the conventional form that’s implemented by the pooling operation. It’s also great for segmenting digits that highly overlap.

  • CapsNet preserves detailed information about the object’s location and its pose (position, size, orientation) throughout the network. This process is known as equivariance.

  • The scalar-output feature detectors of a CNN are replaced with vector-output capsules. It solves the orientation problem in CNNs as when the orientation of the image is changed, the vector’s direction will also move following that position.

  • CapsNet aims to borrow the idea of inverse graphics, which is the reverse process of how computers render images.

  • CapsNet requires less training data than CNN, which require plenty of data to generalize.

Wrapping Up

This article briefly introduces the main key ideas behind Capsule Networks (CapsNet). CapsNet is a better approach than CNN, but it’s still at an infant stage. The researchers in the paper term CapsNet as being in a similar stage as Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN) at the start of this century.

More research still needs to be done before it can outperform current advanced technologies. I will be writing a follow-up article where I’ll go in-depth on implementing CapsNet using the Keras API and the TensorFlow back-end.

I hope you found this article helpful.


  1. Dynamic Routing Between Capsules
  2. Transforming Autoencoders
  3. Geoffrey E. Hinton
  4. Convolutional Neural Network
  5. TensorFlow
  6. Keras
  7. Matrix Capsules with EM Routing

Peer Review Contributions by: Lalithnarayan C

About the author

Willies Ogola

Willies Ogola is pursuing his Master’s in Computer Science in Hubei University of Technology, China. His research direction is on Artificial Intelligence and Embedded Systems. He likes researching during his free time and is passionate about technology.

This article was contributed by a student member of Section's Engineering Education Program. Please report any errors or innaccuracies to