A Theoretical View on Sparsely Activated Networks

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 (NeurIPS 2022) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Cenk Baykal, Nishanth Dikkala, Rina Panigrahy, Cyrus Rashtchian, Xin Wang


Deep and wide neural networks successfully fit very complex functions today, but dense models are starting to be prohibitively expensive for inference. To mitigate this, one promising research direction is networks that activate a sparse subgraph of the network. The subgraph is chosen by a data-dependent routing function, enforcing a fixed mapping of inputs to subnetworks (e.g., the Mixture of Experts (MoE) paradigm in Switch Transformers). However, there is no theoretical grounding for these sparsely activated models. As our first contribution, we present a formal model of data-dependent sparse networks that captures salient aspects of popular architectures. Then, we show how to construct sparse networks that provably match the approximation power and total size of dense networks on Lipschitz functions. The sparse networks use much fewer inference operations than dense networks, leading to a faster forward pass. The key idea is to use locality sensitive hashing on the input vectors and then interpolate the function in subregions of the input space. This offers a theoretical insight into why sparse networks work well in practice. Finally, we present empirical findings that support our theory; compared to dense networks, sparse networks give a favorable trade-off between number of active units and approximation quality.