The inverse variance-flatness relation in stochastic gradient descent is critical for finding flat minima
Despite tremendous success of the stochastic gradient descent (SGD) algorithm in deep learning, little is known about how SGD finds generalizable solutions at flat minima of the loss function in high-dimensional weight space. Here, we investigate the connection between SGD learning dynamics and the loss function landscape. A principal component analysis (PCA) shows that SGD dynamics follow a low-dimensional drift-diffusion motion in the weight space. Around a solution found by SGD, the loss function landscape can be characterized by its flatness in each PCA direction. Remarkably, our study reveals a robust inverse relation between the weight variance and the landscape flatness in all PCA directions, which is the opposite to the fluctuation-response relation (aka Einstein relation) in equilibrium statistical physics. To understand the inverse variance-flatness relation, we develop a phenomenological theory of SGD based on statistical properties of the ensemble of minibatch loss functions. We find that both the anisotropic SGD noise strength (temperature) and its correlation time depend inversely on the landscape flatness in each PCA direction. Our results suggest that SGD serves as a landscape-dependent annealing algorithm. The effective temperature decreases with the landscape flatness so the system seeks out (prefers) flat minima over sharp ones. Based on these insights, an algorithm with landscape-dependent constraints is developed to mitigate catastrophic forgetting efficiently when learning multiple tasks sequentially. In general, our work provides a theoretical framework to understand learning dynamics, which may eventually lead to better algorithms for different learning tasks.