Bridging Discrete and Backpropagation: Straight-Through and Beyond

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

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Liyuan Liu, Chengyu Dong, Xiaodong Liu, Bin Yu, Jianfeng Gao


Backpropagation, the cornerstone of deep learning, is limited to computing gradients for continuous variables. This limitation poses challenges for problems involving discrete latent variables. To address this issue, we propose a novel approach to approximate the gradient of parameters involved in generating discrete latent variables. First, we examine the widely used Straight-Through (ST) heuristic and demonstrate that it works as a first-order approximation of the gradient. Guided by our findings, we propose ReinMax, which achieves second-order accuracy by integrating Heun’s method, a second-order numerical method for solving ODEs. ReinMax does not require Hessian or other second-order derivatives, thus having negligible computation overheads. Extensive experimental results on various tasks demonstrate the superiority of ReinMax over the state of the art.