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Using Datasets with TensorFlow

This document is a quick introduction to using datasets with TensorFlow, with a particular focus on how to get tf.Tensor objects out of our datasets, and how to stream data from Hugging Face Dataset objects to Keras methods like

Dataset format

By default, datasets return regular Python objects: integers, floats, strings, lists, etc.

To get TensorFlow tensors instead, you can set the format of the dataset to tf:

>>> from datasets import Dataset
>>> data = [[1, 2],[3, 4]]
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict({"data": [[1, 2],[3, 4]]})
>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf")
>>> ds[0]
{'data': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2,), dtype=int64, numpy=array([1, 2])>}
>>> ds[:2]
{'data': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 2), dtype=int64, numpy=
array([[1, 2],
       [3, 4]])>}

A Dataset object is a wrapper of an Arrow table, which allows fast reads from arrays in the dataset to TensorFlow tensors.

This can be useful for converting your dataset to a dict of Tensor objects, or for writing a generator to load TF samples from it. If you wish to convert the entire dataset to Tensor, simply query the full dataset:

>>> ds[:]
{'data': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 2), dtype=int64, numpy=
array([[1, 2],
       [3, 4]])>}

N-dimensional arrays

If your dataset consists of N-dimensional arrays, you will see that by default they are considered as nested lists. In particular, a TensorFlow formatted dataset outputs a RaggedTensor instead of a single tensor:

>>> from datasets import Dataset
>>> data = [[[1, 2],[3, 4]],[[5, 6],[7, 8]]]
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict({"data": data})
>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf")
>>> ds[0]
{'data': <tf.RaggedTensor [[1, 2], [3, 4]]>}

To get a single tensor, you must explicitly use the Array feature type and specify the shape of your tensors:

>>> from datasets import Dataset, Features, Array2D
>>> data = [[[1, 2],[3, 4]],[[5, 6],[7, 8]]]
>>> features = Features({"data": Array2D(shape=(2, 2), dtype='int32')})
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict({"data": data}, features=features)
>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf")
>>> ds[0]
{'data': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 2), dtype=int64, numpy=
 array([[1, 2],
        [3, 4]])>}
>>> ds[:2]
{'data': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 2, 2), dtype=int64, numpy=
 array([[[1, 2],
         [3, 4]],
        [[5, 6],
         [7, 8]]])>}

Other feature types

ClassLabel data are properly converted to tensors:

>>> from datasets import Dataset, Features, ClassLabel
>>> labels = [0, 0, 1]
>>> features = Features({"label": ClassLabel(names=["negative", "positive"])})
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict({"label": labels}, features=features) 
>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf")  
>>> ds[:3]
{'label': <tf.Tensor: shape=(3,), dtype=int64, numpy=array([0, 0, 1])>}

Strings and binary objects are also supported:

>>> from datasets import Dataset, Features 
>>> text = ["foo", "bar"]
>>> data = [0, 1] 
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict({"text": text, "data": data})  
>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf") 
>>> ds[:2]
{'text': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2,), dtype=string, numpy=array([b'foo', b'bar'], dtype=object)>,
 'data': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2,), dtype=int64, numpy=array([0, 1])>}

You can also explicitly format certain columns and leave the other columns unformatted:

>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf", columns=["data"], output_all_columns=True)
>>> ds[:2]
{'data': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2,), dtype=int64, numpy=array([0, 1])>,
 'text': ['foo', 'bar']}

String and binary objects are unchanged, since PyTorch only supports numbers.

The Image and Audio feature types are also supported:

>>> from datasets import Dataset, Features, Audio, Image
>>> images = ["path/to/image.png"] * 10
>>> features = Features({"image": Image()})
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict({"image": images}, features=features) 
>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf")  
>>> ds[0]
{'image': <tf.Tensor: shape=(512, 512, 4), dtype=uint8, numpy=
 array([[[255, 215, 106, 255],
         [255, 215, 106, 255],
         [255, 255, 255, 255],
         [255, 255, 255, 255]]], dtype=uint8)>}
>>> ds[:2]
{'image': <tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 512, 512, 4), dtype=uint8, numpy=
 array([[[[255, 215, 106, 255],
          [255, 215, 106, 255],
          [255, 255, 255, 255],
          [255, 255, 255, 255]]]], dtype=uint8)>}
>>> from datasets import Dataset, Features, Audio, Image
>>> audio = ["path/to/audio.wav"] * 10
>>> features = Features({"audio": Audio()})
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict({"audio": audio}, features=features) 
>>> ds = ds.with_format("tf")  
>>> ds[0]["audio"]["array"]
<tf.Tensor: shape=(202311,), dtype=float32, numpy=
array([ 6.1035156e-05,  1.5258789e-05,  1.6784668e-04, ...,
       -1.5258789e-05, -1.5258789e-05,  1.5258789e-05], dtype=float32)>
>>> ds[0]["audio"]["sampling_rate"]
<tf.Tensor: shape=(), dtype=int32, numpy=44100>

Data loading

Although you can load individual samples and batches just by indexing into your dataset, this won’t work if you want to use Keras methods like fit() and predict(). You could write a generator function that shuffles and loads batches from your dataset and fit() on that, but that sounds like a lot of unnecessary work. Instead, if you want to stream data from your dataset on-the-fly, we recommend converting your dataset to a using the to_tf_dataset() method.

The class covers a wide range of use-cases - it is often created from Tensors in memory, or using a load function to read files on disc or external storage. The dataset can be transformed arbitrarily with the map() method, or methods like batch() and shuffle() can be used to create a dataset that’s ready for training. These methods do not modify the stored data in any way - instead, the methods build a data pipeline graph that will be executed when the dataset is iterated over, usually during model training or inference. This is different from the map() method of Hugging Face Dataset objects, which runs the map function immediately and saves the new or changed columns.

Since the entire data preprocessing pipeline can be compiled in a, this approach allows for massively parallel, asynchronous data loading and training. However, the requirement for graph compilation can be a limitation, particularly for Hugging Face tokenizers, which are usually not (yet!) compilable as part of a TF graph. As a result, we usually advise pre-processing the dataset as a Hugging Face dataset, where arbitrary Python functions can be used, and then converting to afterwards using to_tf_dataset() to get a batched dataset ready for training. To see examples of this approach, please see the examples or notebooks for transformers.

Using to_tf_dataset()

Using to_tf_dataset() is straightforward. Once your dataset is preprocessed and ready, simply call it like so:

>>> from datasets import Dataset
>>> data = {"inputs": [[1, 2],[3, 4]], "labels": [0, 1]}
>>> ds = Dataset.from_dict(data)
>>> tf_ds = ds.to_tf_dataset(

The returned tf_ds object here is now fully ready to train on, and can be passed directly to! Note that you set the batch size when creating the dataset, and so you don’t need to specify it when calling fit():

>>>, epochs=2)

For a full description of the arguments, please see the to_tf_dataset() documentation. In many cases, you will also need to add a collate_fn to your call. This is a function that takes multiple elements of the dataset and combines them into a single batch. When all elements have the same length, the built-in default collator will suffice, but for more complex tasks a custom collator may be necessary. In particular, many tasks have samples with varying sequence lengths which will require a data collator that can pad batches correctly. You can see examples of this in the transformers NLP examples and notebooks, where variable sequence lengths are very common.

When to use to_tf_dataset

The astute reader may have noticed at this point that we have offered two approaches to achieve the same goal - if you want to pass your dataset to a TensorFlow model, you can either convert the dataset to a Tensor or dict of Tensors using .with_format('tf'), or you can convert the dataset to a with to_tf_dataset(). Either of these can be passed to, so which should you choose?

The key thing to recognize is that when you convert the whole dataset to Tensors, it is static and fully loaded into RAM. This is simple and convenient, but if any of the following apply, you should probably use to_tf_dataset() instead:

  • Your dataset is too large to fit in RAM. to_tf_dataset() streams only one batch at a time, so even very large datasets can be handled with this method.
  • You want to apply random transformations using dataset.with_transform() or the collate_fn. This is common in several modalities, such as image augmentations when training vision models, or random masking when training masked language models. Using to_tf_dataset() will apply those transformations at the moment when a batch is loaded, which means the same samples will get different augmentations each time they are loaded. This is usually what you want.
  • Your data has a variable dimension, such as input texts in NLP that consist of varying numbers of tokens. When you create a batch with samples with a variable dimension, the standard solution is to pad the shorter samples to the length of the longest one. When you stream samples from a dataset with to_tf_dataset, you can apply this padding to each batch via your collate_fn. However, if you want to convert such a dataset to dense Tensors, then you will have to pad samples to the length of the longest sample in the entire dataset! This can result in huge amounts of padding, which wastes memory and reduces your model’s speed.

Caveats and limitations

Right now, to_tf_dataset() always return a batched dataset - we will add support for unbatched datasets soon!