The Impact of Neural Network Overparameterization on Gradient Confusion and Stochastic Gradient Descent

The goal of this paper is to study why stochastic gradient descent (SGD) is efficient for neural networks, and how neural net design affects SGD. In particular, we investigate how overparameterization -- an increase in the number of parameters beyond the number of training data -- affects the dynamics of SGD. We introduce a simple concept called gradient confusion. When confusion is high, stochastic gradients produced by different data samples may be negatively correlated, slowing down convergence. But when gradient confusion is low, we show that SGD has better convergence properties than predicted by classical theory. Using theoretical and experimental results, we study how overparameterization affects gradient confusion, and thus the convergence of SGD, on linear models and neural networks. We show that increasing the number of parameters of linear models or increasing the width of neural networks leads to lower gradient confusion, and thus faster and easier model training. We also show how overparameterization by increasing the depth of neural networks results in higher gradient confusion, making deeper models harder to train. Finally, we observe empirically that techniques like batch normalization and skip connections reduce gradient confusion, which helps reduce the training burden of deep networks.

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