Advances in All-Neural Speech Recognition

Advances in All-Neural Speech Recognition

Abstract

This paper advances the design of CTC-based all-neural (or end-to-end) speech recognizers. We propose a novel symbol inventory, and a novel iterated-CTC method in which a second system is used to transform a noisy initial output into a cleaner version. We present a number of stabilization and initialization methods we have found useful in training these networks.

We evaluate our system on the commonly used NIST 2000 conversational telephony test set, and significantly exceed the previously published performance of similar systems, both with and without the use of an external language model and decoding technology.

Advances in All-Neural Speech Recognition

Geoffrey Zweig, Chengzhu Yu, Jasha Droppo and Andreas Stolcke
Microsoft Research


Index Terms—  recurrent neural network, CTC, speech recognition, end-to-end training.

1 Introduction

In the recent renaissance of neural network speech recognition [1, 2, 3, 4, 5], as well as in pioneering earlier work [6, 7], the networks have been mainly used as a drop-in replacement for the acoustic model in an HMM system. They have also been used for feature-augmentation in a “tandem” GMM-HMM system [8], which again relied on a standard HMM backbone. The state-of-the-art today is a hybrid HMM/neural-net system, which uses the classical decoding strategy

(1)

where the prior on words is estimated with a language model trained on text only, and the probability of the acoustics is estimated with a neural network acoustic model. The acoustic model still uses a decision tree [9] to further decompose the word sequence into context-dependent triphone states, and a decoder to perform a complex discrete search for the likeliest word sequence.

Recently, several research groups have begun to study whether a neural network itself can subsume the functions of the decision tree, and decoding search. We refer to these approaches as “all-neural,” and they are also commonly referred to as “end-to-end.” Two main approaches have been used, both of which attempt to leverage a recurrent neural network’s potential ability to “remember” information for a long period of time111The vanishing gradient problem has been sufficiently overcome by long-short-term memory (LSTM) [10] and recurrent neural networks with rectified linear units (ReLU-RNNs) [11] that many problems in machine translation and language processing can be handled regardless. and then act on it [12, 13, 14]. The first of these approaches uses an RNN trained in the “connectionist temporal classification” (CTC) framework [15] to predict letter rather than phonetic output [16, 17, 18, 19, 20]. At its base, this approach has no decoder at all, with all logic related to language modeling and decoding being implicitly done by the RNN. The output of a CTC system can of course be consumed by a subsequent decoding process, but it is not necessary. The second approach uses an RNN with an attention mechanism [21, 22, 23]. The attention mechanism provides a weighted sum of the hidden activations in a learned encoding of the input frames as an additional input to the RNN at each time frame. When the network learns an attention function that happens to be unimodal with a peak that moves from left to right monotonically, it is similar to a Viterbi alignment.

Attention-based models use a beam search to decode sequentially, symbol by symbol.

This paper is motivated by the desire to see to what extent the decoding process of a standard system can be modeled by a neural net itself, and to gauge the necessity of a pronunciation dictionary and decision tree. We describe a CTC based system that advances the state-of-the-art in all-neural modeling for conversational speech recognition. We propose a two-stage CTC process, in which we first train a system that consumes speech features and hypothesizes letter sequences. Second, we re-use the CTC apparatus to train a system that consumes this noisy letter sequence and produces a cleaner version. Additionally, we present a careful exploration of the unit-vocabulary, and of the training process. We find that a symbol inventory that uses special word-initial characters (capital letters) rather than spaces performs well. Finally, we explore the addition of both character and word language models. We advance the state of the art at every level from pure all-neural ASR through to the addition of a word-based decoding process.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section 2 places our work in the context of previous efforts. Section 3 describe the model we use, and 4 our standard decoding process, and extensions. Section 5 proposes the novel technique of iterated CTC. In Section 6 we describe the details of training the models. Section 7 presents experimental results, followed by conclusions in Section 8.

2 Relation to Prior Work

Letter-based or graphemic systems have been long studied [24, 25, 26, 27], and are attractive because they alleviate the need to produce a dictionary of word pronunciations. Past work was motivated by the need to quickly build systems in new languages without a dictionary, and kept the rest of a standard HMM system, in particular the use of a decision tree.

In contrast to this, we follow recent work [22, 18, 23, 19] where a neural network learns context-dependence implicitly.

Our approach is most similar to the CTC methods of [20, 28, 19, 18, 17]. In contrast to [20, 28, 17], we use a ReLU-RNN rather than an LSTM, and find it to be effective and much faster. In contrast to [19], we use recurrent networks at every level as opposed to deep neural nets (DNNs) in the lower levels, and an RNN at the top level only. Also in contrast to [19], we study performance in the absence of an external language model as well as with one.

We extend past CTC work by the use of what we term iterated CTC, first operating on acoustic features, and then on letter sequences. This use of CTC on symbolic input is a novel alternative to encoder-decoder models, and is described in Section 5. Interestingly, the attention-based approach of [22] also introduces an extra RNN layer with the motivation of modeling symbol/language level phenomena.

3 The Model

We adopt a multi-layer RNN trained with CTC [15]. Central to the CTC process is the use of a “don’t care” or blank symbol, which is allowed to optionally occur between regular symbols.

The standard alpha-beta recursions are used to compute the posterior state occupancy probabilities.

Let the input consist of acoustic frames along with a symbol sequence . Denote an alignment of the audio frames to the sequence by , and the product of the state-level neural net probabilities for the alignment as . Let be the probability the neural net assigns to symbol at time , i.e., the output after the softmax function. The CTC objective function is given by

is determined by the HMM transition probabilities. We use a self-loop probability of 0.5 for all symbols. The probability of transitioning from a non-blank symbol to the blank symbol is 0.25, and from a non-blank symbol to the next non-blank symbol it is 0.25. In addition, the probability of transitioning out of the blank symbol to the next non-blank symbol is 0.25. The key input to CTC is the probability, as determined by the neural network, of a particular symbol at time .

Consistent with standard notation, denote the posterior probability of being in state/symbol at time by . Note that this is derived from the alpha-beta computations, and is distinct from the probability that the neural network assigns to symbol at time . The derivative of the CTC objective function with respect to the activation for output at time before the softmax is

This is the error signal for backpropagation into the RNN.

4 Interpreting the Output

4.1 Raw CTC Output

After training, the output of the RNN can be directly converted into a readable character sequence. There are two problems to solve:

  1. Where to put spaces between words.

  2. How to distinguish instances of repeated characters, for example the ll in hello, from a sequence of frames each labeled with the same letter, e.g., the l in help. Recall that the CTC blank symbol is optional, so a sequence of frames labeled by a single letter cannot be immediately distinguished from multiple occurrences of that letter.

When the symbol inventory includes a space symbol (distinct from the blank symbol), the first problem is easily solved. Past work, e.g. [18], solve the second problem with a search over alternatives, or requiring a blank between letters. Instead, we propose a new symbol inventory as described below.

4.2 Symbol Inventory

Past work [18, 19, 22] has explicitly modeled the spaces between words in the acoustic model, e.g., with a special space symbol “_” distinct from the CTC blank symbol. Since words are frequently run together, we propose an alternative representation where word-initial characters are considered distinct from non-initial characters. A convenient representation of this is to use capital letters in the word-initial position. Since the forward-backward computation in CTC requires that the input sequence be longer than the output sequence, this also increases the set of utterances that can be aligned. This is also consistent with speech recognition systems that use position-dependent phonetic variants. To identify repeated letters, we use special double-letter units to represent repeated characters like ll. Finally, to improve the readability of the output without any further processing, we attach apostrophes to the following letters, creating units like the “’d” in “we’d.” Altogether the unit inventory size is 79.

As an example of this, the sentence

yes he has one

would be rendered for training as

YesHeHasOne”.

With this encoding, a readable decoding can then be produced very simply:

  1. Select the most likely symbol at each frame

  2. Discard all occurrences of the “don’t care” symbol

  3. Compress consecutive occurrences of the same letter into one occurrence

  4. Add a space in front of each capitalized letter and show the output

4.3 Character Beam Search

Previous work [19, 18, 23] has used a character-level language model to improve the output of a neural system. This implements the classical decoding paradigm of Eqn. 1

at the character level, with the character language model providing or in this case . The neural network provides , and beam search is used to find the likeliest character sequence. We present results for this approach in Section 7.4.

4.4 Word Beam Search

To provide a complete set of results comparable to [19], we have also used a word-based decoder that uses a graphemic dictionary, and uses the frame-level likelihoods in the standard way. The decoder is the dynamic decoder as described in [29]. We used the CUED-RNNLM toolkit [30] to train two forward- and two backward-running RNN language models. These are interpolated with a standard 4-gram model and used to rescore N-best lists produced by the N-gram decoder. Details can be found in a companion paper [31].

5 Iterated CTC (CTC)

The output described in the previous section is of course noisy. For example, one of the Switchboard utterances is “no white collar crime does not exactly fall into it”, but the raw network output is “and now whi coler crime doen exsitally fall into it”. The classical approach to improving this is the incorporation of a lexicon of legal word units and a language model, as described in Section 4.

To improve the output with a purely neural network based approach, we propose using iterated CTC. Specifically, the noisy character sequences from the initial raw CTC output is represented by one-hot feature vectors analogous to the acoustic feature vectors, and the RNN/CTC training process is repeated. The result is a model that transforms a noisy symbol sequence into a less noisy sequence. We have found that this process, while producing less dramatic improvements than the incorporation of a full fledged decoder, consistently improves the output, while staying in the all-neural paradigm. This is the case even when the original network is optimally deep.

6 Training Process

Our models are trained using stochastic gradient descent with momentum and L2 regularization. For all but our largest networks, minibatches of utterances are processed at once, resulting in updates after several thousand speech frames. For networks of width 1024 and depth 7 or greater, we have found it necessary to process 64 utterances simultaneously to achieve accurate gradient estimates and stable convergence. We use frame-skipping [17], where we stack three consecutive frames into a single vector to produce an input sequence one-third as long and three times as wide as the original input. When we train on the 300-hour Switchboard set, we use a per-frame learning rate of 0.5, and decrease it by a factor of 4 if 3 iterations over the data fail to produce an improvement on development data. We randomly held out about 10 hours of training data for use as development data. When the Fisher data is added, resulting in about 2000 hours of training data, the rate is reduced if a single iteration passes without increasing dev set likelihood.

We implement the model with direct calls to the CUDNN v5.0 RNN library. Training with 40-dimensional input feature vectors (prior to skipping), a 512-dimension bi-directional ReLU-RNN with three hidden layers is about 0.0025 times real time, i.e., 400 times faster than real time on a Razer laptop with a NVIDIA 970M GPU.

Explicit spaces Capital letters Initial+Final letters
38.1 36.2 36.2
Table 1: Word error rate (%) on NIST RT-02 Switchboard-1 test set as a function of symbol inventory, for a 512-wide 5-deep network
Hidden Dimension WER
512 36.2
1024 31.9
2048 30.4
Table 2: Word error rate (%) on the RT-02 test set as a function of hidden layer size, for 5-layer networks

6.1 Stabilization Methods

In initial experiments, we found it useful to introduce several stabilization techniques. Most importantly, we use gradient clipping to prevent “exploding gradients” during the RNN training. The magnitude of the gradients are clipped at 1 prior to the momentum update. Secondarily, we have noticed that when rare units are present (e.g., the “ii” in “Hawaii,” the training process tends to push their probabilities close to 0 between occurrences, which leads to poor performance and sometimes instability when the unit is eventually seen. To avoid this, we interpolate the gradient with a small gradient tending towards the uniform distribution. This is implemented by interpolating the values from the alpha-beta computation with a uniform distribution. We reserve 1% of the total probability mass for this uniform distribution. Finally, we have also found it important to compute the gradient over a large number of utterances (32 or 64) before doing a parameter update.

6.2 Model Initialization

Weight matrices are initialized with small random weights uniformly distributed and inversely proportional to the square root of the fan-in, with one exception. In the output layer, which maps from the RNN hidden dimension (typically 1024) down to the size of the symbol inventory (79 in our case), we assign explicit responsibility for each output symbol to a specific RNN activation. This is done by using an identity matrix for the first 79 dimensions, and zeros elsewhere. In the case of bidirectional networks, this is done symmetrically so both forward and backward portions of the network contribute equally. While we have not performed an exhaustive evaluation of this scheme, in initial experiments we observed consistent small gains. Concurrent with this work, a similar scheme was very recently proposed in [32] for standard neural net systems.

6.3 Polishing with In-domain Data

Our training process begins and ends with a focus on the in-domain 300 hour switchboard-only dataset. We start by training on the 300 hour set mainly for convenience in showing results with both the 300 hour (Switchboard) and 2000 hour (Switchboard + Fisher) data-sets. The 2000 hour models presented here were initialized with the output of 300 hour training. While training from scratch with 2000 hours of data works about as well, we have found it consistently useful to finish all training runs by executing a few more iterations of training on the in-domain Switchboard-only data. We do this starting from a very low learning rate (one-tenth the normal rate), and most of the gain is observed in the first iteration of training.

7 Experiments

Number of layers 512 width 1024 width
3 48.5 38.1
4 38.3 34.6
5 36.2 31.9
6 34.5 30.3
7 32.5 30.6
8 31.0 31.3
9 31.4 29.4
10 31.5 29.4
Table 3: Word error rate (%) as a function of the number of layers and dimensions on the RT-02 test set
None Iterated CTC Character-Beam Word-Beam
29.4 27.9 23.3 19.2
Table 4: Word error rate (%) as a function of post-processing for the RT-02 test set, using a 9-layer 1024-wide network

7.1 Corpus

For comparability with [18, 19, 23, 22], we present results on the NIST 2000 conversational telephone speech (CTS) evaluation set. Model selection uses the RT-02 CTS evaluation set for development. The input features are 40-dimensional log-Mel-filterbank energies, extracted every 10 milliseconds. The feature vectors are normalized to zero mean on a per-utterance level. Since the logarithmic compression already limits the dynamic range to reasonable levels, we do not perform variance normalization.

7.2 Network Architecture and Symbol Inventory

For computational efficiency, we restricted ourselves to the models directly supported by the CUDNN v5.0 library. This encompasses multi-layer uni- and bidirectional RNNs. Support is provided for LSTMs, Gated Recurrent Units, standard sigmoid RNNs, and ReLU-RNNs. In initial experiments, we found that ReLU-RNNs are as good as LSTMs for this task, and many times faster. Therefore we use them exclusively in the experiments. We further focus on bi-directional networks for improved performance.

Reference Lexicon LM CH SW
[18] N N 56.1 38.0
[22] N N 48.2 27.3
Current N N 38.8 25.9
Current+CTC N N 37.1 24.7
[18] N Char NG 43.8 27.8
[18] N Char RNN 40.2 21.4
Current N Char NG 32.1 19.8
[22] Y Word NG 46.0 25.8
[19] Y Word NG 31.8 20.0

Current
Y Word NG 26.3 15.1
Current Y Word RNN 25.3 14.0
Table 5: Comparative performance: word error rates (%) on the NIST 2000 Switchboard and CallHome test sets (models trained on 300 hours of Switchboard data only). All systems are use graphemic targets.

Table 1 shows the effect of our choice of symbol inventory. We see that the use of special word-initial characters improves performance over the use of explicit blanks. Redundantly modeling word-final characters does not provide a further improvement. For ease of interpretability, all models use explicit double-character symbols.

In Table 2, we show the effect of network width, keeping the depth constant at 5. While the widest network is the best, for computational reasons we restrict our further experiments to networks of width 1024 or less.

In Table 3, we present the effect of network depth, for hidden layer sizes of 512 and 1024. Note that since we use a bidirectional network, the total number of activations in a layer is double this. We find that relatively deep networks perform well. Based on these results, the remainder of the experiments use a 1024 width 9 layer bidirectional network. Including weight matrices and biases, the total number of parameters in the 9 layer 1024 wise network is about 53 million parameters.

7.3 Iterated CTC and Beam Search

We evaluate the post-processing methods in Table 4. Clearly, the RNN is not yet learning all the logic of a beam-search decoder, and the effectiveness of a character-based beam search is midway between using the raw output, and a full word-based search. We see that iterated CTC can produce a significant improvement, though not as much as a complete beam search, while remaining in the all-neural framework. When character or word N-grams are used, the utility decreases. An examination of the iterated CTC errors indicates that it mostly reduces the substitution rates, as the global shifts created by insertions and deletions seem difficult for the RNN to compensate.

7.4 Comparison to Previously Published Results

We summarize our results on the NIST 2000 CTS test set and compare them with past work in Tables 5 and 6. The systems are categorized according to whether they use a lexicon to enforce the output of legal words, and in their use of a language model. We see an improvement over previous results with our RNN based system. In [28], a LSTM-CTC system using phonemic rather than graphemic targets is presented, and achieves an error rate of 15% on the Switchboard portion of eval 2000; that system still uses a phonetic dictionary. Note that the authors in [28] did not report an error rate on Switchboard tasks with characters as target. The only reported number for a CTC-based system with character output is from [19], where the error rate is 20.0%. This is much higher than the 15% error rate we obtained in this work under the same evaluation conditions. Compared to a standard system, such as [33], which achieves 9.6% and 13% on Switchboard and CallHome respectively with conventional 300-hour training, we see that current neural-only systems cannot yet mimic all the logic in a conventional system. However, our ReLU-RNN system does set a new state of the art for an all-neural system, and we see that performance of such systems is rapidly improving.

Reference Lexicon LM CH SW
Current N N 26.4 17.2
Current N Char NG 21.8 13.8
[19] (ensemble) Y Word NG 19.3 12.6
Current Y Word NG 18.7 11.3
Current Y Word RNN 17.7 10.2
Table 6: Comparative performance: word error rate (%) on the NIST 2000 Switchboard and CallHome test sets (models trained on 2000 hours of combined Fisher & Switchboard data)

8 Conclusions

We advance the state of the art with an all-neural speech recognizer, principally by employing a novel symbol encoding, and optimized training process. We further present an iterated CTC approach for use without any decoding process. In this framework, a network first maps from audio to symbols, followed by a second symbol-to-symbol mapping network.

Both using raw network output and search-based post-processing, we systematically improve on previously published results in the end-to-end neural speech recognition paradigm.

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