Understanding Batch Normalization

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 31 (NeurIPS 2018)

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Nils Bjorck, Carla P. Gomes, Bart Selman, Kilian Q. Weinberger


Batch normalization (BN) is a technique to normalize activations in intermediate layers of deep neural networks. Its tendency to improve accuracy and speed up training have established BN as a favorite technique in deep learning. Yet, despite its enormous success, there remains little consensus on the exact reason and mechanism behind these improvements. In this paper we take a step towards a better understanding of BN, following an empirical approach. We conduct several experiments, and show that BN primarily enables training with larger learning rates, which is the cause for faster convergence and better generalization. For networks without BN we demonstrate how large gradient updates can result in diverging loss and activations growing uncontrollably with network depth, which limits possible learning rates. BN avoids this problem by constantly correcting activations to be zero-mean and of unit standard deviation, which enables larger gradient steps, yields faster convergence and may help bypass sharp local minima. We further show various ways in which gradients and activations of deep unnormalized networks are ill-behaved. We contrast our results against recent findings in random matrix theory, shedding new light on classical initialization schemes and their consequences.