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On Learning Rates and Schrödinger Operators

Bin Shi, Weijie Su, Michael I. Jordan; 24(379):1−53, 2023.


Understanding the iterative behavior of stochastic optimization algorithms for minimizing nonconvex functions remains a crucial challenge in demystifying deep learning. In particular, it is not yet understood why certain simple techniques are remarkably effective for tuning the learning rate in stochastic gradient descent (SGD), arguably the most basic optimizer for training deep neural networks. This class of techniques includes learning rate decay, which begins with a large initial learning rate and is gradually reduced. In this paper, we present a general theoretical analysis of the effect of the learning rate in SGD. Our analysis is based on the use of a learning-rate-dependent stochastic differential equation (LR-dependent SDE) as a tool that allows us to set SGD distinctively apart from both gradient descent and stochastic gradient Langevin dynamics (SGLD). In contrast to prior research, our analysis builds on the analysis of a partial differential equation that models the evolution of probability densities, drawing insights from Wainwright and Jordan (2006); Jordan (2018). From this perspective, we derive the linear convergence rate of the probability densities, highlighting its dependence on the learning rate. Moreover, we obtain an explicit expression for the optimal linear rate by analyzing the spectrum of the Witten-Laplacian, a special case of the Schrödinger operator associated with the LR-dependent SDE. This expression clearly reveals the dependence of the linear convergence rate on the learning rate—the linear rate decreases rapidly to zero as the learning rate tends to zero for a broad class of nonconvex functions, whereas it stays constant for strongly convex functions. Based on this sharp distinction between nonconvex and convex problems, we provide a mathematical interpretation of the benefits of using learning rate decay for nonconvex optimization.

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