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Understanding the failure modes of out-of-distribution generalization

Vaishnavh Nagarajan · Anders J Andreassen · Behnam Neyshabur

Keywords: [ empirical risk minimization ] [ out-of-distribution generalization ] [ spurious correlations ] [ theoretical study ]


Empirical studies suggest that machine learning models often rely on features, such as the background, that may be spuriously correlated with the label only during training time, resulting in poor accuracy during test-time. In this work, we identify the fundamental factors that give rise to this behavior, by explaining why models fail this way even in easy-to-learn tasks where one would expect these models to succeed. In particular, through a theoretical study of gradient-descent-trained linear classifiers on some easy-to-learn tasks, we uncover two complementary failure modes. These modes arise from how spurious correlations induce two kinds of skews in the data: one geometric in nature and another, statistical. Finally, we construct natural modifications of image classification datasets to understand when these failure modes can arise in practice. We also design experiments to isolate the two failure modes when training modern neural networks on these datasets.

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