Keywords: knowledge distillation, semiparametric inference, generalization bounds, model compression, cross-fitting, orthogonal machine learning, loss correction
Abstract: A popular approach to model compression is to train an inexpensive student model to mimic the class probabilities of a highly accurate but cumbersome teacher model. Surprisingly, this two-step knowledge distillation process often leads to higher accuracy than training the student directly on labeled data. To explain and enhance this phenomenon, we cast knowledge distillation as a semiparametric inference problem with the optimal student model as the target, the unknown Bayes class probabilities as nuisance, and the teacher probabilities as a plug-in nuisance estimate. By adapting modern semiparametric tools, we derive new guarantees for the prediction error of standard distillation and develop two enhancements—cross-fitting and loss correction—to mitigate the impact of teacher overfitting and underfitting on student performance. We validate our findings empirically on both tabular and image data and observe consistent improvements from our knowledge distillation enhancements.
One-sentence Summary: By framing distillation as semiparametric inference, we derive new guarantees for standard distillation and develop two enhancements—cross-fitting and loss correction—to mitigate the impact of teacher overfitting and underfitting.
Supplementary Material: zip
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Code: [![github](/images/github_icon.svg) microsoft/semiparametric-distillation](https://github.com/microsoft/semiparametric-distillation)