Early Convolutions Help Transformers See Better

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

Bibtex Paper Reviews And Public Comment » Supplemental


Tete Xiao, Mannat Singh, Eric Mintun, Trevor Darrell, Piotr Dollar, Ross Girshick


Vision transformer (ViT) models exhibit substandard optimizability. In particular, they are sensitive to the choice of optimizer (AdamW vs. SGD), optimizer hyperparameters, and training schedule length. In comparison, modern convolutional neural networks are easier to optimize. Why is this the case? In this work, we conjecture that the issue lies with the patchify stem of ViT models, which is implemented by a stride-p p×p convolution (p = 16 by default) applied to the input image. This large-kernel plus large-stride convolution runs counter to typical design choices of convolutional layers in neural networks. To test whether this atypical design choice causes an issue, we analyze the optimization behavior of ViT models with their original patchify stem versus a simple counterpart where we replace the ViT stem by a small number of stacked stride-two 3×3 convolutions. While the vast majority of computation in the two ViT designs is identical, we find that this small change in early visual processing results in markedly different training behavior in terms of the sensitivity to optimization settings as well as the final model accuracy. Using a convolutional stem in ViT dramatically increases optimization stability and also improves peak performance (by ∼1-2% top-1 accuracy on ImageNet-1k), while maintaining flops and runtime. The improvement can be observed across the wide spectrum of model complexities (from 1G to 36G flops) and dataset scales (from ImageNet-1k to ImageNet-21k). These findings lead us to recommend using a standard, lightweight convolutional stem for ViT models in this regime as a more robust architectural choice compared to the original ViT model design.