Two Sides of One Coin: the Limits of Untuned SGD and the Power of Adaptive Methods

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

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Junchi YANG, Xiang Li, Ilyas Fatkhullin, Niao He


The classical analysis of Stochastic Gradient Descent (SGD) with polynomially decaying stepsize $\eta_t = \eta/\sqrt{t}$ relies on well-tuned $\eta$ depending on problem parameters such as Lipschitz smoothness constant, which is often unknown in practice. In this work, we prove that SGD with arbitrary $\eta > 0$, referred to as untuned SGD, still attains an order-optimal convergence rate $\widetilde{\mathcal{O}}(T^{-1/4})$ in terms of gradient norm for minimizing smooth objectives. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of a catastrophic exponential dependence on the smoothness constant, which we show is unavoidable for this scheme even in the noiseless setting. We then examine three families of adaptive methods — Normalized SGD (NSGD), AMSGrad, and AdaGrad — unveiling their power in preventing such exponential dependency in the absence of information about the smoothness parameter and boundedness of stochastic gradients. Our results provide theoretical justification for the advantage of adaptive methods over untuned SGD in alleviating the issue with large gradients.