CNN2SNN toolkit


The Brainchip CNN2SNN toolkit provides a means to convert Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN) that were trained using Deep Learning methods to a low-latency and low-power Spiking Neural Network (SNN) for use with the Akida Execution Engine. This document is a guide to that process.

The Akida Execution Engine provides Spiking Neural Networks (SNN) in which communications between neurons take the form of “spikes” or impulses that are generated when a neuron exceeds a threshold level of activation. Neurons that do not cross the threshold generate no output and contribute no further computational cost downstream. This feature is key to Akida hardware efficiency. The Akida Execution Engine further extends this efficiency by operating with low bitwidth “synapses” or weights of connections between neurons.

Despite the apparent fundamental differences between SNNs and CNNs, the underlying mathematical operations performed by each may be rendered identical. Consequently, the trained parameters of a CNN can be converted to be Akida-compatible, given only a small number of constraints 1. By careful attention to specifics in the architecture and training of the CNN, an overly complex conversion step from CNN to SNN can be avoided. The CNN2SNN toolkit comprises a set of functions designed for the popular Tensorflow Keras framework, making it easy to train a SNN-compatible network.

Conversion Workflow


Compatibility Constraints

When designing a model from scratch, or converting an existing model to obtain a final Akida-compatible model, consider compatibility at these distinct levels:

  • Weights must be quantized (using 1, 2, 3, 4 or 8 bits).

  • Activations should be quantized too (using 1, 2 or 4 bits, with maximum spike value set to 152). This is necessary for preparing a CNN compatible with the Akida SNN model. Brainchip provides easy-to-use custom functions for this purpose. The use of tf.keras layers is described in the next chapter.

  • Modification or substitution of a layer will be required when a method that is used in the CNN is not compatible with the Akida architecture. For instance, this can be the case for residual connections.

Only serial and feedforward arrangements can be converted3.

Note that our experience reveals that although existing Keras models can be quantized almost without loss to 8 bits, a quantization-aware training of the model is required for lower quantization bitwidths.

For that reason, the CNN2SNN toolkit includes quantization-aware versions of the base Keras layer types.

Typical training scenario

We recommend preparing your model for the in two (or more) training episodes. In the first episode, train with the standard Keras versions of the weights and activations.

Once it is established that the overall model configuration prior to quantization yields a satisfactory performance on the task, proceed with quantization suitable for Akida architecture, changing only the quantization parameters.

We recommend saving the weights of your trained non-quantized model and using those to initialize the quantized version; typically leading to both faster convergence and better final performance values. See the provided tutorials for examples.

Also, it is possible to proceed with quantization in a serie of smaller steps. For example, it may be beneficial to train, first with all standard/floating-point values, then retrain with quantized activations, and then, finally, with quantized weights.

It is possible to subdivide even further – going step by step through the individual layers and even modifying the targeted network sparsity4 to achieve an optimal trade-off between accuracy and speed.

Layers Considerations

Supported layer types

The CNN2SNN toolkit currently supports the following layer types:


Akida check_model_compatibility function gives an indication regarding incompatible layers before conversion. A good practice is to check model compatibility before going through the training process.

Quantization-aware layers

Several articles have reported5 that the quantization of a pre-trained float Keras model using 8 bits precision can be performed with a minimal loss of accuracy, but that for lower bitwidth a quantization-aware training of the model is required. This is confirmed by our own experiments.

The CNN2SNN toolkit therefore includes quantization-aware versions of the base Keras layers.

Quantization aware training simulates the effect of quantization in the forward pass, yet using a straight-through estimator for the quantization gradient in the backward pass. For the stochastic gradient descent to be efficient, the weights are stored as float values and updated with high precision during back propagation. This ensures sufficient precision in accumulating tiny weights adjustments.

The CNN2SNN toolkit includes two classes of quantization-aware layers:

Most of the parameters for the quantized processing layers are identical to those used when defining a model using standard Keras layers. However, each of these layers also includes a quantizer parameter that specifies the WeightQuantizer object to use during the quantization-aware training.


QuantizedConv2D, supports convolutions with stride 1 only: to adapt an existing model with a higher convolution stride, we suggest substituting a convolution with stride 1 followed by a pooling step of the appropriate size and stride. Only exception: if the first layer of the CNN model with image inputs is a QuantizedConv2D, a convolution stride is supported.

The quantized activation layer takes a single parameter corresponding to the bitwidth of the quantized activations.

Training-Only Layers

The Akida Execution Engine is used in CNN conversion for inference only. Training is done within the Keras environment and training-only layers may be added at will, such as BatchNormalization or Dropout layers. These are handled fully by Keras during the training and do not need to be modified to be Akida-compatible for inference.

As regards the implementation within the Akida Execution Engine: it may be helpful to understand that the associated scaling operations (multiplication and shift) are never performed during inference. The computational cost is reduced by wrapping the (optional) batch normalization function and quantized activation function into the spike generating thresholds and other parameters of the Akida SNN. That process is completely transparent to the user. It does, however, have an important consequence for the output of the final layer of the model; see Final Layers below.

First Layers

Most layers of an Akida model only accept sparse inputs. In order to support the most common classes of models in computer vision, a special layer (InputConvolutional) is however able to receive image data (8-bit grayscale or RGB). See the Akida user guide for further details.

The CNN2SNN toolkit supports any quantization-aware training layer as the first layer in the model. The type of input accepted by that layer can be specified during conversion, but only models starting with a QuantizedConv2D layer will accept dense inputs, thanks to the special (InputConvolutional) layer.

Input Scaling

The InputConvolutional layer only receives 8-bit input values:

  • if the data is already in 8-bit format it can be sent to the Akida inputs without rescaling.

  • if the data has been scaled to ease training, it is necessary to provide the scaling coefficients at model conversion.

This applies to the common case where input data are natively 8-bit. If input data are not 8-bit, the process is more complex, and we recommend applying rescaling in two steps:

  1. Taking the data to an 8-bit unsigned integer format suitable for Akida architecture. Apply this step both for training and inference data.

  2. Rescaling the 8-bit values to some unit or zero centered range suitable for CNN training, as above. This step should only be applied for the CNN training. Also, remember to provide those scaling coefficients when converting the trained model to an Akida-compatible format.

Final Layers

As is typical for CNNs, the final layer of a model does not include the standard activation nonlinearity. If that is the case, once converted to Akida hardware, the model will give the potentials levels and in most cases, taking the maximum among these values is sufficient to obtain the correct response from the model. However, if there is a difference in performance between the Keras and the Akida-compatible implementations of the model, it is likely be at this step.

Layer Blocks

Ensuring the conversion compatibility of a CNN model into an Akida model can be tricky. Therefore, a higher-level interface is proposed with the use of layer blocks. These blocks are available in the akida_models PyPi package:

import akida_models.quantization_blocks


In Keras, when adding a core layer type (Dense or Conv2D) to a model, an activation function is typically included:

x = Dense(64, activation='relu')(x)

or the equivalent, explicitly adding the activation function separately:

x = Dense(64)(x)
x = Activation('relu'))(x)

It is very common for other functions to be included in this arrangement, e.g., a normalization of values before applying the activation function:

x = Dense(64)(x)
x = BatchNormalization()(x)
x = Activation('relu')(x)

This particular arrangement of layers is important during the quantization-aware training of Akida-compatible CNNs and is therefore reflected in the blocks API.

For instance, the following code snippet sets up the same trio of layers as those above:

x = dense_block(x, 64, add_batchnorm=True)

The dense_block function will produce a group of layers that we call a “block”.


quantization_block = QuantizedConv2D/Dense/SeparableConv2D + (Pooling) + (BatchNorm) + (Activation)

To avoid adding the activation layer, add the parameter activ_quantization = None to the block.

The option of including pooling, batchnorm layers or activation is directly built into the provided block modules. The layer block functions provided are:

  • conv_block,

  • separable_conv_block,

  • dense_block.

Most of the parameters for these blocks are identical to those passed to the corresponding inner quantized processing layers.


def conv_block(inputs,
               pool_size=(2, 2),


def dense_block(inputs,


def separable_conv_block(inputs,
                         pool_size=(2, 2),

Tips and Tricks

In some cases, it may be useful to adapt existing CNN models in order to simplify or enhance the converted SNN. Here’s a short list of some possible substitutions that might come in handy:


Typically, for the Akida harware – quantized weights and quantized activations.


The spike value depends on the intensity of the potential, see the Akida documentation for details on the activation.


Parallel layers and “residual” connections are currently not supported.


Sparsity refers to the fraction of both weights and activations with value zero.


See for instance “Quantizing deep convolutional networks for efficient inference: A whitepaper” - Raghuraman Krishnamoorthi, 2018