Efficiently avoiding saddle points with zero order methods: No gradients required

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 32 (NeurIPS 2019)

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Emmanouil-Vasileios Vlatakis-Gkaragkounis, Lampros Flokas, Georgios Piliouras


We consider the case of derivative-free algorithms for non-convex optimization, also known as zero order algorithms, that use only function evaluations rather than gradients. For a wide variety of gradient approximators based on finite differences, we establish asymptotic convergence to second order stationary points using a carefully tailored application of the Stable Manifold Theorem. Regarding efficiency, we introduce a noisy zero-order method that converges to second order stationary points, i.e avoids saddle points. Our algorithm uses only $\tilde{\mathcal{O}}(1 / \epsilon^2)$ approximate gradient calculations and, thus, it matches the converge rate guarantees of their exact gradient counterparts up to constants. In contrast to previous work, our convergence rate analysis avoids imposing additional dimension dependent slowdowns in the number of iterations required for non-convex zero order optimization.