Knowledge Distillation as Semiparametric Inference

Tri Dao · Govinda Kamath · Vasilis Syrgkanis · Lester Mackey

Keywords: [ generalization bounds ] [ knowledge distillation ] [ model compression ] [ loss correction ] [ orthogonal machine learning ] [ cross-fitting ] [ semiparametric inference ]


A popular approach to model compression is to train an inexpensive student model to mimic the class probabilities of a highly accurate but cumbersome teacher model. Surprisingly, this two-step knowledge distillation process often leads to higher accuracy than training the student directly on labeled data. To explain and enhance this phenomenon, we cast knowledge distillation as a semiparametric inference problem with the optimal student model as the target, the unknown Bayes class probabilities as nuisance, and the teacher probabilities as a plug-in nuisance estimate. By adapting modern semiparametric tools, we derive new guarantees for the prediction error of standard distillation and develop two enhancements—cross-fitting and loss correction—to mitigate the impact of teacher overfitting and underfitting on student performance. We validate our findings empirically on both tabular and image data and observe consistent improvements from our knowledge distillation enhancements.

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