Stiffness: A New Perspective on Generalization in Neural Networks

28 Jan 2019  ·  Stanislav Fort, Paweł Krzysztof Nowak, Stanislaw Jastrzebski, Srini Narayanan ·

In this paper we develop a new perspective on generalization of neural networks by proposing and investigating the concept of a neural network stiffness. We measure how stiff a network is by looking at how a small gradient step in the network's parameters on one example affects the loss on another example. Higher stiffness suggests that a network is learning features that generalize. In particular, we study how stiffness depends on 1) class membership, 2) distance between data points in the input space, 3) training iteration, and 4) learning rate. We present experiments on MNIST, FASHION MNIST, and CIFAR-10/100 using fully-connected and convolutional neural networks, as well as on a transformer-based NLP model. We demonstrate the connection between stiffness and generalization, and observe its dependence on learning rate. When training on CIFAR-100, the stiffness matrix exhibits a coarse-grained behavior indicative of the model's awareness of super-class membership. In addition, we measure how stiffness between two data points depends on their mutual input-space distance, and establish the concept of a dynamical critical length -- a distance below which a parameter update based on a data point influences its neighbors.

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