Quantifying and Improving Transferability in Domain Generalization

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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Guojun Zhang, Han Zhao, Yaoliang Yu, Pascal Poupart


Out-of-distribution generalization is one of the key challenges when transferring a model from the lab to the real world. Existing efforts mostly focus on building invariant features among source and target domains. Based on invariant features, a high-performing classifier on source domains could hopefully behave equally well on a target domain. In other words, we hope the invariant features to be \emph{transferable}. However, in practice, there are no perfectly transferable features, and some algorithms seem to learn ``more transferable'' features than others. How can we understand and quantify such \emph{transferability}? In this paper, we formally define transferability that one can quantify and compute in domain generalization. We point out the difference and connection with common discrepancy measures between domains, such as total variation and Wasserstein distance. We then prove that our transferability can be estimated with enough samples and give a new upper bound for the target error based on our transferability. Empirically, we evaluate the transferability of the feature embeddings learned by existing algorithms for domain generalization. Surprisingly, we find that many algorithms are not quite learning transferable features, although few could still survive. In light of this, we propose a new algorithm for learning transferable features and test it over various benchmark datasets, including RotatedMNIST, PACS, Office-Home and WILDS-FMoW. Experimental results show that the proposed algorithm achieves consistent improvement over many state-of-the-art algorithms, corroborating our theoretical findings.