Beyond Distribution Shift: Spurious Features Through the Lens of Training Dynamics

Published: 24 Oct 2023, Last Modified: 24 Oct 2023Accepted by TMLREveryoneRevisionsBibTeX
Abstract: Deep Neural Networks (DNNs) are prone to learning spurious features that correlate with the label during training but are irrelevant to the learning problem. This hurts model generalization and poses problems when deploying them in safety-critical applications. This paper aims to better understand the effects of spurious features through the lens of the learning dynamics of the internal neurons during the training process. We make the following observations: (1) While previous works highlight the harmful effects of spurious features on the generalization ability of DNNs, we emphasize that not all spurious features are harmful. Spurious features can be "benign" or "harmful" depending on whether they are "harder" or "easier" to learn than the core features for a given model. This definition is model and dataset dependent. (2) We build upon this premise and use instance difficulty methods (like Prediction Depth) to quantify "easiness" for a given model and to identify this behavior during the training phase. (3) We empirically show that the harmful spurious features can be detected by observing the learning dynamics of the DNN's early layers. In other words, easy features learned by the initial layers of a DNN early during the training can (potentially) hurt model generalization. We verify our claims on medical and vision datasets, both simulated and real, and justify the empirical success of our hypothesis by showing the theoretical connections between Prediction Depth and information-theoretic concepts like $\mathcal{V}$-usable information. Lastly, our experiments show that monitoring only accuracy during training (as is common in machine learning pipelines) is insufficient to detect spurious features. We, therefore, highlight the need for monitoring early training dynamics using suitable instance difficulty metrics.
Submission Length: Regular submission (no more than 12 pages of main content)
Supplementary Material: zip
Assigned Action Editor: ~Srinadh_Bhojanapalli1
License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Submission Number: 1133