Escaping the Gravitational Pull of Softmax

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

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Jincheng Mei, Chenjun Xiao, Bo Dai, Lihong Li, Csaba Szepesvari, Dale Schuurmans


The softmax is the standard transformation used in machine learning to map real-valued vectors to categorical distributions. Unfortunately, this transform poses serious drawbacks for gradient descent (ascent) optimization. We reveal this difficulty by establishing two negative results: (1) optimizing any expectation with respect to the softmax must exhibit sensitivity to parameter initialization (softmax gravity well''), and (2) optimizing log-probabilities under the softmax must exhibit slow convergence (softmax damping''). Both findings are based on an analysis of convergence rates using the Non-uniform \L{}ojasiewicz (N\L{}) inequalities. To circumvent these shortcomings we investigate an alternative transformation, the \emph{escort} mapping, that demonstrates better optimization properties. The disadvantages of the softmax and the effectiveness of the escort transformation are further explained using the concept of N\L{} coefficient. In addition to proving bounds on convergence rates to firmly establish these results, we also provide experimental evidence for the superiority of the escort transformation.