Keywords: deep learning, optimization, skip connections
TL;DR: Degenerate manifolds arising from the non-identifiability of the model slow down learning in deep networks; skip connections help by breaking degeneracies.
Abstract: Skip connections made the training of very deep networks possible and have become an indispensable component in a variety of neural architectures. A completely satisfactory explanation for their success remains elusive. Here, we present a novel explanation for the benefits of skip connections in training very deep networks. The difficulty of training deep networks is partly due to the singularities caused by the non-identifiability of the model. Several such singularities have been identified in previous works: (i) overlap singularities caused by the permutation symmetry of nodes in a given layer, (ii) elimination singularities corresponding to the elimination, i.e. consistent deactivation, of nodes, (iii) singularities generated by the linear dependence of the nodes. These singularities cause degenerate manifolds in the loss landscape that slow down learning. We argue that skip connections eliminate these singularities by breaking the permutation symmetry of nodes, by reducing the possibility of node elimination and by making the nodes less linearly dependent. Moreover, for typical initializations, skip connections move the network away from the "ghosts" of these singularities and sculpt the landscape around them to alleviate the learning slow-down. These hypotheses are supported by evidence from simplified models, as well as from experiments with deep networks trained on real-world datasets.