First-order methods almost always avoid saddle points: The case of vanishing step-sizes

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

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Ioannis Panageas, Georgios Piliouras, Xiao Wang


In a series of papers [Lee et al 2016], [Panageas and Piliouras 2017], [Lee et al 2019], it was established that some of the most commonly used first order methods almost surely (under random initializations) and with step-size being small enough, avoid strict saddle points, as long as the objective function $f$ is $C^2$ and has Lipschitz gradient. The key observation was that first order methods can be studied from a dynamical systems perspective, in which instantiations of Center-Stable manifold theorem allow for a global analysis. The results of the aforementioned papers were limited to the case where the step-size $\alpha$ is constant, i.e., does not depend on time (and typically bounded from the inverse of the Lipschitz constant of the gradient of $f$). It remains an open question whether or not the results still hold when the step-size is time dependent and vanishes with time. In this paper, we resolve this question on the affirmative for gradient descent, mirror descent, manifold descent and proximal point. The main technical challenge is that the induced (from each first order method) dynamical system is time non-homogeneous and the stable manifold theorem is not applicable in its classic form. By exploiting the dynamical systems structure of the aforementioned first order methods, we are able to prove a stable manifold theorem that is applicable to time non-homogeneous dynamical systems and generalize the results in [Lee et al 2019] for time dependent step-sizes.