Gradient Descent on Two-layer Nets: Margin Maximization and Simplicity Bias

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

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Kaifeng Lyu, Zhiyuan Li, Runzhe Wang, Sanjeev Arora


The generalization mystery of overparametrized deep nets has motivated efforts to understand how gradient descent (GD) converges to low-loss solutions that generalize well. Real-life neural networks are initialized from small random values and trained with cross-entropy loss for classification (unlike the "lazy" or "NTK" regime of training where analysis was more successful), and a recent sequence of results (Lyu and Li, 2020; Chizat and Bach, 2020; Ji and Telgarsky, 2020) provide theoretical evidence that GD may converge to the "max-margin" solution with zero loss, which presumably generalizes well. However, the global optimality of margin is proved only in some settings where neural nets are infinitely or exponentially wide. The current paper is able to establish this global optimality for two-layer Leaky ReLU nets trained with gradient flow on linearly separable and symmetric data, regardless of the width. The analysis also gives some theoretical justification for recent empirical findings (Kalimeris et al., 2019) on the so-called simplicity bias of GD towards linear or other "simple" classes of solutions, especially early in training. On the pessimistic side, the paper suggests that such results are fragile. A simple data manipulation can make gradient flow converge to a linear classifier with suboptimal margin.