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When does preconditioning help or hurt generalization?

Shun-ichi Amari · Jimmy Ba · Roger Grosse · Xuechen Li · Atsushi Nitanda · Taiji Suzuki · Denny Wu · Ji Xu


Keywords: [ high-dimensional asymptotics ] [ natural gradient descent ] [ second-order optimization ] [ generalization ]

Abstract: While second order optimizers such as natural gradient descent (NGD) often speed up optimization, their effect on generalization has been called into question. This work presents a more nuanced view on how the \textit{implicit bias} of optimizers affects the comparison of generalization properties. We provide an exact asymptotic bias-variance decomposition of the generalization error of preconditioned ridgeless regression in the overparameterized regime, and consider the inverse population Fisher information matrix (used in NGD) as a particular example. We determine the optimal preconditioner $\boldsymbol{P}$ for both the bias and variance, and find that the relative generalization performance of different optimizers depends on label noise and ``shape'' of the signal (true parameters): when the labels are noisy, the model is misspecified, or the signal is misaligned with the features, NGD can achieve lower risk; conversely, GD generalizes better under clean labels, a well-specified model, or aligned signal. Based on this analysis, we discuss several approaches to manage the bias-variance tradeoff, and the potential benefit of interpolating between first- and second-order updates. We then extend our analysis to regression in the reproducing kernel Hilbert space and demonstrate that preconditioning can lead to more efficient decrease in the population risk. Lastly, we empirically compare the generalization error of first- and second-order optimizers in neural network experiments, and observe robust trends matching our theoretical analysis.

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