Feature-Learning Networks Are Consistent Across Widths At Realistic Scales

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Nikhil Vyas, Alexander Atanasov, Blake Bordelon, Depen Morwani, Sabarish Sainathan, Cengiz Pehlevan


We study the effect of width on the dynamics of feature-learning neural networks across a variety of architectures and datasets. Early in training, wide neural networks trained on online data have not only identical loss curves but also agree in their point-wise test predictions throughout training. For simple tasks such as CIFAR-5m this holds throughout training for networks of realistic widths. We also show that structural properties of the models, including internal representations, preactivation distributions, edge of stability phenomena, and large learning rate effects are consistent across large widths. This motivates the hypothesis that phenomena seen in realistic models can be captured by infinite-width, feature-learning limits. For harder tasks (such as ImageNet and language modeling), and later training times, finite-width deviations grow systematically. Two distinct effects cause these deviations across widths. First, the network output has an initialization-dependent variance scaling inversely with width, which can be removed by ensembling networks. We observe, however, that ensembles of narrower networks perform worse than a single wide network. We call this the bias of narrower width. We conclude with a spectral perspective on the origin of this finite-width bias.