# Learning Hierarchical Polynomials with Three-Layer Neural Networks

We study the problem of learning hierarchical polynomials over the standard Gaussian distribution with three-layer neural networks. We specifically consider target functions of the form $h = g \circ p$ where $p : \mathbb{R}^d \rightarrow \mathbb{R}$ is a degree $k$ polynomial and $g: \mathbb{R} \rightarrow \mathbb{R}$ is a degree $q$ polynomial. This function class generalizes the single-index model, which corresponds to $k=1$, and is a natural class of functions possessing an underlying hierarchical structure. Our main result shows that for a large subclass of degree $k$ polynomials $p$, a three-layer neural network trained via layerwise gradient descent on the square loss learns the target $h$ up to vanishing test error in $\widetilde{\mathcal{O}}(d^k)$ samples and polynomial time. This is a strict improvement over kernel methods, which require $\widetilde \Theta(d^{kq})$ samples, as well as existing guarantees for two-layer networks, which require the target function to be low-rank. Our result also generalizes prior works on three-layer neural networks, which were restricted to the case of $p$ being a quadratic. When $p$ is indeed a quadratic, we achieve the information-theoretically optimal sample complexity $\widetilde{\mathcal{O}}(d^2)$, which is an improvement over prior work~\citep{nichani2023provable} requiring a sample size of $\widetilde\Theta(d^4)$. Our proof proceeds by showing that during the initial stage of training the network performs feature learning to recover the feature $p$ with $\widetilde{\mathcal{O}}(d^k)$ samples. This work demonstrates the ability of three-layer neural networks to learn complex features and as a result, learn a broad class of hierarchical functions.

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