Imitating Deep Learning Dynamics via Locally Elastic Stochastic Differential Equations

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

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Jiayao Zhang, Hua Wang, Weijie Su


Understanding the training dynamics of deep learning models is perhaps a necessary step toward demystifying the effectiveness of these models. In particular, how do training data from different classes gradually become separable in their feature spaces when training neural networks using stochastic gradient descent? In this paper, we model the evolution of features during deep learning training using a set of stochastic differential equations (SDEs) that each corresponding to a training sample. As a crucial ingredient in our modeling strategy, each SDE contains a drift term that reflects the impact of backpropagation at an input on the features of all samples. Our main finding uncovers a sharp phase transition phenomenon regarding the intra-class impact: if the SDEs are locally elastic in the sense that the impact is more significant on samples from the same class as the input, the features of training data become linearly separable---meaning vanishing training loss; otherwise, the features are not separable, no matter how long the training time is. In the presence of local elasticity, moreover, an analysis of our SDEs shows the emergence of a simple geometric structure called neural collapse of the features. Taken together, our results shed light on the decisive role of local elasticity underlying the training dynamics of neural networks. We corroborate our theoretical analysis with experiments on a synthesized dataset of geometric shapes as well as on CIFAR-10.