Entity Embeddings

PythonDeep Learning

Creating entity embeddings for categorical predictors using Python.


Jonny Law


August 4, 2021

The tidymodels framework in R has a function for constructing Entity Embeddings from categorical features. The library is know as embed and the heavy lifting (neural network fitting) is performed using Keras. What if we want something similar in Python and sklearn. First, we will aim to understand what an embedding is and how it can be created (and re-used). Embeddings are familiar to those who have used the Word2Vec model for natural language processing (NLP). Word2Vec is a shallow neural network trained on a corpus of (unlabelled) documents. The task of the network is to predict a context word close to the original word. The resulting shallow network has an “embedding matrix” which has the same number of rows as the number of words in the corpus vocabulary and a user-chosen embedding dimension as the number of columns. Each row represents the position of a word in the embedding space and its location is very close to its meaning. Additionally, we can perform arithmetic with the embeddings and get reasonable answers.

We can use this same technique to embed high-dimensional categorical variables when we have lots of data. This can be seen in a 2017 publication from ASOS, an online fashion retailer (Customer Lifetime Value Prediction Using Embeddings, Chamberlain et. al., KDD 2017).

PyTorch Model

First we must create a new Neural Network architecture, in PyTorch this means that we extend torch.nn.Module class which requires the implementation of a forward method. The forward method creates a prediction from the input, the method consists of applications of matrix multiplications and activations. In this case, we have an Embedding module for each categorical feature (of dimension (n_categories, hidden_dim)), created using nn.ModuleList. The embedding module enables us to “look up” the corresponding row of the embedding matrix for that categorical variable and return the embedding for that category. For the continuous features, we have a linear layer of dimension (num_cont, hidden_dim) which can then be combined using torch.cat, the ReLU activation function is used and the output is calculated using another linear layer of dimension (2 hidden_dim, num_output_classes). There is no activation on the network, since it is typically more efficient to use a loss function which also includes the calculation of the activation function, BCEWithLogitsLoss vs BCELoss.

PyTorch implements the backprop algorithm which will create a backward function, this backward function is the derivative of the network with respect to the input. This derivative is used in the optimisation algorithms to learn the values of the parameters which minimise the loss function.

We will start with some imports required to use PyTorch.

import torch.nn as nn
import torch
class EmbeddingClassification(nn.Module):
    """Embed a single categorical predictor
    Keyword Arguments:
    num_output_classes: int
    num_cat_classes: list[int]
    num_cont: int
    embedding_dim: int
    hidden_dim: int
    def __init__(self, num_output_classes, num_cat_classes, num_cont, 
    embedding_dim=64, hidden_dim=64):
        # Create an embedding for each categorical input
        self.embeddings = nn.ModuleList([nn.Embedding(nc, embedding_dim) for nc in num_cat_classes])
        self.fc1 = nn.Linear(in_features=len(num_cat_classes) * embedding_dim, out_features=hidden_dim)
        self.fc2 = nn.Linear(in_features=num_cont, out_features=hidden_dim)
        self.relu = nn.ReLU()
        self.out = nn.Linear(2 * hidden_dim, num_output_classes)
    def forward(self, x_cat, x_con):
        # Embed each of the categorical variables
        x_embed = [emb(x_cat[:, i]) for i, emb in enumerate(self.embeddings)]
        x_embed = torch.cat(x_embed, dim=1)
        x_embed = self.fc1(x_embed)
        x_con = self.fc2(x_con)
        x = torch.cat([x_con, x_embed.squeeze()], dim=1)
        x = self.relu(x)
        return self.out(x)    

Titanic Dataset

I will show how the embeddings work in practice using the titanic dataset. This is not the ideal dataset to use with embeddings since each categorical variable has a small number of categories, however it is well understood and useful for pedagogical purposes.

import pandas as pd
from collections import Counter
from sklearn.model_selection import train_test_split
from sklearn.compose import ColumnTransformer
from sklearn.pipeline import Pipeline
from sklearn.impute import KNNImputer
from sklearn.preprocessing import StandardScaler, OrdinalEncoder


First we must pre-process the data,

  • Parse the Name column to extract the title as an additional categorical variable
  • Select the columns to include
  • Interpolate the numeric columns using a KNNImputer
  • Split the data into a training/test split
df = pd.read_csv('titanic.csv')

# Derive title column
df['Title'] = df['Name'].str.extract('([A-Za-z]+\.)', expand = False)

# Count the occurences of Title by category
def get_category_count(x, categorical_columns):
    return [Counter(x[c]) for c in categorical_columns]
# Filter low occurences (less than or equal to 3?)
cat_counts = get_category_count(df, ["Title"])
rare_titles = [k for k, v in cat_counts[0].items() if v < 3]
df['Title'].replace(to_replace=rare_titles, value='other', inplace=True)

include = ['Sex', 'Age', 'Fare', 'Title']
x = df[include]
y = df['Survived']

# Define the numeric and categorical columns
num_cols = ['Fare', 'Age']
cat_cols = ['Sex', 'Title']

# Split the data into training and test
x_train, x_test, y_train, y_test = train_test_split(x, y, random_state=SEED)

# Interpolate the numeric columns using KNN and scale using the StandardScaler
num_standard = Pipeline(steps=[
    ('imputer', KNNImputer(n_neighbors=5)),
    ('scaler', StandardScaler())

We then need to encode the categorical variables by assigning a number to each of the possiblities. This allows us to use an embedding layer in the PyTorch neural network (NN). NNs only work with numerical input.

preprocessor = ColumnTransformer(
    ("num_std", num_standard, num_cols),
    ("ordinal_encode", OrdinalEncoder(), cat_cols),

preprocessed = preprocessor.fit_transform(x_train, y=None)
preprocessed_df = pd.DataFrame(preprocessed, columns=num_cols + cat_cols)
def get_categorical_dimensions(x, categorical_columns):
  count_of_classes = get_category_count(x, categorical_columns)
  return [len(count) for count in count_of_classes]

def entity_encoding_classification(x, categorical_columns, num_classes):
  Convenience function for the EmbeddingClassification model which     
  Keyword Arguments:
  x: pandas df
  y: target column
  categorical_columns: list[int] a list of the indices of the categorical columns
  num_classes: int the number of output classes of the target column
  x_con = x.drop(categorical_columns, axis=1)
  categorical_dimension = get_categorical_dimensions(x, categorical_columns)
  return EmbeddingClassification(num_classes, categorical_dimension, len(x_con.columns))

Now we can create the Pytorch model using the function we just defined.

model = entity_encoding_classification(x_train, cat_cols, 1)

We will not write out own training loop, instead we will use the Skorch library. The Skorch library allows us to use the sklearn API with our own PyTorch models. Skorch provides classes, such as NeuralNetBinaryClassifier, with default loss functions (binary cross entropy in this case), train/validation split logic, console logging of loss, validation loss etc. These can be customised, and additional call-backs can be added such as model checkpointing, early stopping, custom scoring metrics and all metrics from sklearn. Other types of model (regression, semi-supervised, reinforcement learning etc.) can be fit using the more generic class NeuralNet.

from skorch import NeuralNetBinaryClassifier

net = NeuralNetBinaryClassifier(
    module = model,

To pass multiple arguments to the forward method of the Skorch model we must specify a SliceDict such that Skorch can access the data and pass it to the module properly.

from skorch.helper import SliceDict

Xs = SliceDict(
    x_con=torch.tensor(preprocessed_df[num_cols].to_numpy(), dtype=torch.float)

We can now use the sklearn fit method with our PyTorch model. This trains the weights of the neural network using back-propagation.

net.fit(Xs, y=torch.tensor(y_train, dtype=torch.float))
<class 'skorch.classifier.NeuralNetBinaryClassifier'>[initialized](
    (embeddings): ModuleList(
      (0): Embedding(2, 64)
      (1): Embedding(7, 64)
    (fc1): Linear(in_features=128, out_features=64, bias=True)
    (fc2): Linear(in_features=2, out_features=64, bias=True)
    (relu): ReLU()
    (out): Linear(in_features=128, out_features=1, bias=True)

Finally, we pre-process the test data by re-using the pipelines from the training data and we can calculate the test accuracy.

from sklearn.metrics import classification_report

x_test_pre = preprocessor.transform(x_test)
preprocessed_test = pd.DataFrame(x_test_pre, columns=num_cols + cat_cols)

Xs_test = SliceDict(
    x_con=torch.tensor(preprocessed_test[num_cols].to_numpy(), dtype=torch.float)

net.score(Xs_test, y_test)

This post shows how to implement entity embeddings using Python, and how to incorporate custom PyTorch models into an sklearn pipeline.


BibTeX citation:
  author = {Jonny Law},
  title = {Entity {Embeddings}},
  date = {2021-08-04},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
Jonny Law. 2021. “Entity Embeddings.” August 4, 2021.