Zhihui Zhu, Tianyu Ding, Jinxin Zhou, Xiao Li, Chong You, Jeremias Sulam, Qing Qu
We provide the first global optimization landscape analysis of Neural Collapse -- an intriguing empirical phenomenon that arises in the last-layer classifiers and features of neural networks during the terminal phase of training. As recently reported by Papyan et al., this phenomenon implies that (i) the class means and the last-layer classifiers all collapse to the vertices of a Simplex Equiangular Tight Frame (ETF) up to scaling, and (ii) cross-example within-class variability of last-layer activations collapses to zero. We study the problem based on a simplified unconstrained feature model, which isolates the topmost layers from the classifier of the neural network. In this context, we show that the classical cross-entropy loss with weight decay has a benign global landscape, in the sense that the only global minimizers are the Simplex ETFs while all other critical points are strict saddles whose Hessian exhibit negative curvature directions. Our analysis of the simplified model not only explains what kind of features are learned in the last layer, but also shows why they can be efficiently optimized, matching the empirical observations in practical deep network architectures. These findings provide important practical implications. As an example, our experiments demonstrate that one may set the feature dimension equal to the number of classes and fix the last-layer classifier to be a Simplex ETF for network training, which reduces memory cost by over 20% on ResNet18 without sacrificing the generalization performance. The source code is available at https://github.com/tding1/Neural-Collapse.