A Mathematical Framework for Quantifying Transferability in Multi-source Transfer Learning

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

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Xinyi Tong, Xiangxiang Xu, Shao-Lun Huang, Lizhong Zheng


Current transfer learning algorithm designs mainly focus on the similarities between source and target tasks, while the impacts of the sample sizes of these tasks are often not sufficiently addressed. This paper proposes a mathematical framework for quantifying the transferability in multi-source transfer learning problems, with both the task similarities and the sample complexity of learning models taken into account. In particular, we consider the setup where the models learned from different tasks are linearly combined for learning the target task, and use the optimal combining coefficients to measure the transferability. Then, we demonstrate the analytical expression of this transferability measure, characterized by the sample sizes, model complexity, and the similarities between source and target tasks, which provides fundamental insights of the knowledge transferring mechanism and the guidance for algorithm designs. Furthermore, we apply our analyses for practical learning tasks, and establish a quantifiable transferability measure by exploiting a parameterized model. In addition, we develop an alternating iterative algorithm to implement our theoretical results for training deep neural networks in multi-source transfer learning tasks. Finally, experiments on image classification tasks show that our approach outperforms existing transfer learning algorithms in multi-source and few-shot scenarios.