Approximate Heavy Tails in Offline (Multi-Pass) Stochastic Gradient Descent

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper


Kruno Lehman, Alain Durmus, Umut Simsekli


A recent line of empirical studies has demonstrated that SGD might exhibit a heavy-tailed behavior in practical settings, and the heaviness of the tails might correlate with the overall performance. In this paper, we investigate the emergence of such heavy tails. Previous works on this problem only considered, up to our knowledge, online (also called single-pass) SGD, in which the emergence of heavy tails in theoretical findings is contingent upon access to an infinite amount of data. Hence, the underlying mechanism generating the reported heavy-tailed behavior in practical settings, where the amount of training data is finite, is still not well-understood. Our contribution aims to fill this gap. In particular, we show that the stationary distribution of offline (also called multi-pass) SGD exhibits ‘approximate’ power-law tails and the approximation error is controlled by how fast the empirical distribution of the training data converges to the true underlying data distribution in the Wasserstein metric. Our main takeaway is that, as the number of data points increases, offline SGD will behave increasingly ‘power-law-like’. To achieve this result, we first prove nonasymptotic Wasserstein convergence bounds for offline SGD to online SGD as the number of data points increases, which can be interesting on their own. Finally, we illustrate our theory on various experiments conducted on synthetic data and neural networks.