Self-training Avoids Using Spurious Features Under Domain Shift

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

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Yining Chen, Colin Wei, Ananya Kumar, Tengyu Ma


In unsupervised domain adaptation, existing theory focuses on situations where the source and target domains are close. In practice, conditional entropy minimization and pseudo-labeling work even when the domain shifts are much larger than those analyzed by existing theory. We identify and analyze one particular setting where the domain shift can be large, but these algorithms provably work: certain spurious features correlate with the label in the source domain but are independent of the label in the target. Our analysis considers linear classification where the spurious features are Gaussian and the non-spurious features are a mixture of log-concave distributions. For this setting, we prove that entropy minimization on unlabeled target data will avoid using the spurious feature if initialized with a decently accurate source classifier, even though the objective is non-convex and contains multiple bad local minima using the spurious features. We verify our theory for spurious domain shift tasks on semi-synthetic Celeb-A and MNIST datasets. Our results suggest that practitioners collect and self-train on large, diverse datasets to reduce biases in classifiers even if labeling is impractical.