Keywords: [ out-of-distribution ] [ extrapolation ] [ deep learning theory ] [ graph neural networks ] [ deep learning ]
We study how neural networks trained by gradient descent extrapolate, i.e., what they learn outside the support of the training distribution. Previous works report mixed empirical results when extrapolating with neural networks: while feedforward neural networks, a.k.a. multilayer perceptrons (MLPs), do not extrapolate well in certain simple tasks, Graph Neural Networks (GNNs) -- structured networks with MLP modules -- have shown some success in more complex tasks. Working towards a theoretical explanation, we identify conditions under which MLPs and GNNs extrapolate well. First, we quantify the observation that ReLU MLPs quickly converge to linear functions along any direction from the origin, which implies that ReLU MLPs do not extrapolate most nonlinear functions. But, they can provably learn a linear target function when the training distribution is sufficiently diverse. Second, in connection to analyzing the successes and limitations of GNNs, these results suggest a hypothesis for which we provide theoretical and empirical evidence: the success of GNNs in extrapolating algorithmic tasks to new data (e.g., larger graphs or edge weights) relies on encoding task-specific non-linearities in the architecture or features. Our theoretical analysis builds on a connection of over-parameterized networks to the neural tangent kernel. Empirically, our theory holds across different training settings.