Update only part of the word embedding matrix in Tensorflow

TL;DR: The default implementation of opt.minimize(loss), TensorFlow will generate a sparse update for word_emb that modifies only the rows of word_emb that participated in the forward pass.

The gradient of the tf.gather(word_emb, indices) op with respect to word_emb is a tf.IndexedSlices object (see the implementation for more details). This object represents a sparse tensor that is zero everywhere, except for the rows selected by indices. A call to opt.minimize(loss) calls AdamOptimizer._apply_sparse(word_emb_grad, word_emb), which makes a call to tf.scatter_sub(word_emb, ...)* that updates only the rows of word_emb that were selected by indices.

If on the other hand you want to modify the tf.IndexedSlices that is returned by opt.compute_gradients(loss, word_emb), you can perform arbitrary TensorFlow operations on its indices and values properties, and create a new tf.IndexedSlices that can be passed to opt.apply_gradients([(word_emb, ...)]). For example, you could cap the gradients using MyCapper() (as in the example) using the following calls:

grad, = opt.compute_gradients(loss, word_emb)
train_op = opt.apply_gradients(
    [tf.IndexedSlices(MyCapper(grad.values), grad.indices)])

Similarly, you could change the set of indices that will be modified by creating a new tf.IndexedSlices with a different indices.

* In general, if you want to update only part of a variable in TensorFlow, you can use the tf.scatter_update(), tf.scatter_add(), or tf.scatter_sub() operators, which respectively set, add to (+=) or subtract from (-=) the value previously stored in a variable.

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