Understanding Neural Network Binarization with Forward and Backward Proximal Quantizers

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

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Yiwei Lu, Yaoliang Yu, Xinlin Li, Vahid Partovi Nia


In neural network binarization, BinaryConnect (BC) and its variants are considered the standard. These methods apply the sign function in their forward pass and their respective gradients are backpropagated to update the weights. However, the derivative of the sign function is zero whenever defined, which consequently freezes training. Therefore, implementations of BC (e.g., BNN) usually replace the derivative of sign in the backward computation with identity or other approximate gradient alternatives. Although such practice works well empirically, it is largely a heuristic or ``training trick.'' We aim at shedding some light on these training tricks from the optimization perspective. Building from existing theory on ProxConnect (PC, a generalization of BC), we (1) equip PC with different forward-backward quantizers and obtain ProxConnect++ (PC++) that includes existing binarization techniques as special cases; (2) derive a principled way to synthesize forward-backward quantizers with automatic theoretical guarantees; (3) illustrate our theory by proposing an enhanced binarization algorithm BNN++; (4) conduct image classification experiments on CNNs and vision transformers, and empirically verify that BNN++ generally achieves competitive results on binarizing these models.