Local Signal Adaptivity: Provable Feature Learning in Neural Networks Beyond Kernels

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

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Stefani Karp, Ezra Winston, Yuanzhi Li, Aarti Singh


Neural networks have been shown to outperform kernel methods in practice (including neural tangent kernels). Most theoretical explanations of this performance gap focus on learning a complex hypothesis class; in some cases, it is unclear whether this hypothesis class captures realistic data. In this work, we propose a related, but alternative, explanation for this performance gap in the image classification setting, based on finding a sparse signal in the presence of noise. Specifically, we prove that, for a simple data distribution with sparse signal amidst high-variance noise, a simple convolutional neural network trained using stochastic gradient descent learns to threshold out the noise and find the signal. On the other hand, the corresponding neural tangent kernel, with a fixed set of predetermined features, is unable to adapt to the signal in this manner. We supplement our theoretical results by demonstrating this phenomenon empirically: in CIFAR-10 and MNIST images with various backgrounds, as the background noise increases in intensity, a CNN's performance stays relatively robust, whereas its corresponding neural tangent kernel sees a notable drop in performance. We therefore propose the "local signal adaptivity" (LSA) phenomenon as one explanation for the superiority of neural networks over kernel methods.