Transformers vs Convolutional Neural Nets (CNNs)

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Deep learning has revolutionized various fields, including image recognition and natural language processing. Two prominent architectures have emerged and are widely adopted: Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) and Transformers.

  • CNNs have long been a staple in image recognition and computer vision tasks, thanks to their ability to efficiently learn local patterns and spatial hierarchies in images. They employ convolutional layers and pooling to reduce the dimensionality of input data while preserving critical information. This makes them highly suitable for tasks that demand interpretation of visual data and feature extraction.
  • Transformers, originally developed for natural language processing tasks, have gained momentum due to their exceptional performance and scalability. With self-attention mechanisms and parallel processing capabilities, they can effectively handle long-range dependencies and contextual information. While their use in computer vision is still limited, recent research has begun to explore their potential to rival and even surpass CNNs in certain image recognition tasks.

CNNs and Transformers differ in their architecture, focus domains, and coding strategies. CNNs excel in computer vision, while Transformers show exceptional performance in NLP; although, with the development of ViTs, Transformers also show promise in the realm of computer vision.


Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) are designed primarily for computer vision tasks, where they excel due to their ability to apply convolving filters to local features. This architecture has also proven effective for NLP, as evidenced by their success in semantic parsing and search query retrieval.

A CNN can efficiently handle large amounts of input data which makes them suitable for computer vision tasks as mentioned before.

CNNs are composed of multiple convolutional layers that apply filters to the input data.

These filters, also known as kernels, are responsible for detecting patterns and features within an image. As you progress through the layers, the filters can identify increasingly complex patterns and ultimately help classify the image.

One of the key advantages of using CNNs is their efficient computation, which significantly reduces the number of parameters required for training.


Transformers, on the other hand, have become the go-to architecture in NLP tasks such as text classification, sentiment analysis, and machine translation. The key to their success lies in the attention mechanism, which enables them to efficiently handle long-range dependencies and varied input lengths. Vision Transformers (ViTs) are now also being employed in computer vision tasks, opening up new possibilities in this field.

Transformers have gained a lot of attention in recent years due to their extraordinary capabilities across various domains such as natural language processing and computer vision. In this section, you’ll learn more about the key components and advantages of transformers.

For those interested in coding these models from scratch, CNNs utilize layers with convolving filters and activation functions, while Transformers involve multi-head self-attention, positional encoding, and feed-forward layers. The code for these architectures can vary depending on the particular use-case and the design of the model.

To start with, transformers consist of an encoder and a decoder.

The encoder processes the input sequence, while the decoder generates the output sequence. Central to the functioning of transformers is their ability to handle position information smartly. This is achieved through the use of positional encodings, which are added to the input sequence to retain information about the position of each element in the sequence.

“Each decoder block receives the features from the encoder. If we draw the encoder and the decoder vertically, the whole picture looks like the diagram from the paper.” (Source)

One of the fundamental aspects of transformers is the self-attention mechanism. This allows the model to weigh the importance of each element in the input sequence in relation to other elements, providing a more nuanced understanding of the input. It is this mechanism that contributes to the excellent performance of transformers for tasks involving multiple modalities, such as text and images, where context is crucial.

A key advantage of transformers is their ability to process input sequences in parallel, enabling parallelization and making them more computationally efficient compared to recurrent neural networks (RNNs) or convolutional neural networks (CNNs). This efficiency is partly due to their architecture, which employs layers of Multi-Head Attention and Multi-Layer Perceptrons (MLPs). These components play a significant role in extracting diverse patterns from the data and can be scaled as needed.

It is worth noting that transformers typically have a large number of parameters, which contributes to their high performance capabilities across various tasks. However, this can also result in increased complexity and longer inference times, as well as an increased need for computational resources. While these factors may be a concern in certain situations, the overall benefits of transformers continue to drive their popularity and adoption in numerous applications such as ChatGPT.

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Comparison of CNN and Transformer

One key distinction is that CNNs leverage inductive biases that encode spatial information from neighboring pixels, whereas Transformers use self-attention mechanisms to process the input.

Beginning with the competitive performance of these models, CNNs have long been the go-to solution for image recognition tasks. Many popular architectures, such as ResNet, have demonstrated exceptional performance on a variety of tasks.

However, recent advancements in Vision Transformers (ViT) have shown that transformers are now on par with or even surpassing the accuracy of CNN-based models in certain instances.

Regarding accuracy, due to advancements in self-attention mechanisms, Transformers tend to perform well on tasks involving longer-range dependencies and complex contextual information. This is especially useful in natural language processing (NLP) tasks. CNNs primarily excel in tasks focusing on local spatial patterns, such as image recognition, where input data exhibits strong spatial correlations.

Inductive biases play a crucial role in the performance of CNNs. They enforce the idea of locality in image data, ensuring that nearby pixels tend to be more strongly connected. These biases help CNNs learn and extract useful features from images, such as edges, corners, and textures, which contribute to their effectiveness in computer vision tasks. Transformers, on the other hand, do not rely heavily on such biases and instead use the self-attention mechanism to capture relationships between elements in the input data.

The way both architectures handle neighboring pixel information differs as well. CNNs use convolutional layers to detect local patterns and maintain spatial information throughout the network. Transformers, however, first convert input images into a sequence of tokens, effectively losing the spatial connections between the pixels. The self-attention mechanism is then used to model relationships between these tokens.

While CNNs have a long history of success in image recognition tasks, there has been a steady increase in the adoption of Transformers for various computer vision tasks.

Applications in Language Processing

In the field of natural language processing (NLP), both Transformer models and Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) have made significant contributions.

One common NLP task is machine translation, which involves converting text from one language to another. Transformers have become quite popular in this domain, as they can effectively capture long-range dependencies, a crucial aspect of translating complex sentences. With their self-attention mechanism, they have the ability to pay attention to every word in the input sequence, leading to high-quality translations.

For language modeling tasks, where the goal is to predict the next word in a given sequence, Transformers have also shown remarkable performance.

By capturing long-range dependencies and leveraging large amounts of context information, Transformer models are well-suited for language modeling problems. This has led to the development of powerful pre-trained language models like BERT and GPT-3 and GPT-4, which have set new benchmarks in various NLP tasks.

On the other hand, CNNs have proven their effectiveness in tasks that involve a fixed-size input, such as sentence classification. With their ability to capture local patterns through convolutional layers, CNNs can learn meaningful textual representations. However, for tasks that require capturing dependencies across larger contexts, they may not be as suitable as Transformer models.

While working with Transformer models, it is essential to keep in mind that they require more memory and computational resources than CNNs, mainly due to their self-attention mechanism. This could be a limitation if you are working with resource constraints.

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Applications in Computer Vision

One common computer vision task where these models excel is image classification. With CNNs, you can effectively learn to identify features in images by applying a series of filters through convolutional layers. These networks create simplified versions of the input image by generating feature maps, highlighting the most relevant parts of the image for classification purposes.

On the other hand, transformers, such as the Vision Transformer (ViT), have been recently proposed as alternatives to classical convolutional approaches. They relax the translation-invariance constraint of CNNs by using attention mechanisms, allowing them to learn more flexible representations of the input images, potentially leading to better classification performance.

Another critical application in computer vision is object detection. Both deep learning techniques, CNNs and vision transformers, have been instrumental in driving significant advances in this area.

Object detection models based on CNNs have paved the way for more accurate and efficient detection systems, while transformers are being explored for their potential to model long dependencies between input elements and parallel processing capabilities, which could lead to further improvements.

In addition to these popular tasks, CNNs and transformers have also been applied to other computer vision challenges such as semantic segmentation, where each pixel in an image is assigned a class label, and instance segmentation, which requires classifying and localizing individual instances of objects.

These applications require models that can effectively learn spatial hierarchies and representations, which both CNNs and transformers have demonstrated their capability to do.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What makes Transformers more effective than CNNs?

Transformers are designed to handle long-range dependencies in sequences effectively due to the self-attention mechanism. This allows them to process and encode information from distant positions in the data efficiently. On the other hand, CNNs use local convolutions, which may not capture large-scale patterns as efficiently. Transformers also parallelize sequence processing, leading to faster computations.

How do Transformers and CNNs perform in computer vision tasks?

CNNs have been the dominant approach in computer vision tasks, such as image classification and object detection, due to their effectiveness in learning local features and hierarchical representations. Transformers, though successful in NLP, have recently started to gain traction in computer vision tasks. Some research suggests that Transformers can perform well and even outpace CNNs in certain computer vision tasks, especially when handling large images with complex patterns.

Can Transformers replace CNNs for image processing?

Transformers are a promising alternative to CNNs for image processing tasks, but they may not replace them entirely. CNNs remain effective and efficient for many computer vision problems, especially when dealing with smaller images or limited computational resources. However, as the field advances, it’s possible that we will see more applications where Transformers outperform or complement CNNs.

What are the advantages of CNN-Transformer hybrids?

CNN-Transformer hybrids combine the strengths of both architectures. CNNs excel at capturing local features, while Transformers efficiently handle dependencies across larger distances. By using a hybrid, you can leverage the benefits of both, leading to improved performance in various tasks, from image classification to semantic segmentation.

How does Transformer architecture compare to RNN and CNN?

All three models have unique strengths. RNNs are known for their ability to handle sequential data and model temporal dependencies but may suffer from the vanishing gradient problem in long sequences. CNNs excel at processing spatial data and learning hierarchical representations, making them effective for many image processing tasks. Transformers emerged as a powerful alternative for handling long sequences and parallelizing computations, which led to their success in NLP and, more recently, computer vision.

Why is Transformer inference speed important compared to CNN?

Inference speed is critical in many real-world applications, such as autonomous driving or real-time video analysis, where quick decisions are crucial. With their parallel computation capabilities, Transformers offer potential speed advantages over CNNs, especially when dealing with large sequences or images. Faster inference times could provide a competitive edge for various applications and contribute to the growing interest in Transformers in the computer vision domain.

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