Google Deepmind

The importance of single directions for generalization


Despite their ability to memorize large datasets, deep neural networks often achieve good generalization performance. However, the differences between the learned solutions of networks which generalize and those which do not remain unclear. Additionally, the tuning properties of single directions (defined as the activation of a single unit or some linear combination of units in response to some input) have been highlighted, but their importance has not been evaluated. Here, we connect these lines of inquiry to demonstrate that a network’s reliance on single directions is a good predictor of its generalization performance, across networks trained on datasets with different fractions of corrupted labels, across ensembles of networks trained on datasets with unmodified labels, across different hyperparameters, and over the course of training. While dropout only regularizes this quantity up to a point, batch normalization implicitly discourages single direction reliance, in part by decreasing the class selectivity of individual units. Finally, we find that class selectivity is a poor predictor of task importance, suggesting not only that networks which generalize well minimize their dependence on individual units by reducing their selectivity, but also that individually selective units may not be necessary for strong network performance.

Ari S. Morcos, David G.T. Barrett, Neil C. Rabinowitz, & Matthew Botvinick

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