No Subclass Left Behind: Fine-Grained Robustness in Coarse-Grained Classification Problems

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 33 (NeurIPS 2020)

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Nimit Sohoni, Jared Dunnmon, Geoffrey Angus, Albert Gu, Christopher Ré


In real-world classification tasks, each class often comprises multiple finer-grained "subclasses." As the subclass labels are frequently unavailable, models trained using only the coarser-grained class labels often exhibit highly variable performance across different subclasses. This phenomenon, known as hidden stratification, has important consequences for models deployed in safety-critical applications such as medicine. We propose GEORGE, a method to both measure and mitigate hidden stratification even when subclass labels are unknown. We first observe that unlabeled subclasses are often separable in the feature space of deep models, and exploit this fact to estimate subclass labels for the training data via clustering techniques. We then use these approximate subclass labels as a form of noisy supervision in a distributionally robust optimization objective. We theoretically characterize the performance of GEORGE in terms of the worst-case generalization error across any subclass. We empirically validate GEORGE on a mix of real-world and benchmark image classification datasets, and show that our approach boosts worst-case subclass accuracy by up to 15 percentage points compared to standard training techniques, without requiring any information about the subclasses.