The Implicit Regularization of Stochastic Gradient Flow for Least Squares

Part of Proceedings of the International Conference on Machine Learning 1 pre-proceedings (ICML 2020)

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Alnur Ali, Edgar Dobriban, Ryan Tibshirani


We study the implicit regularization of mini-batch stochastic gradient descent, when applied to the fundamental problem of least squares regression. We leverage a continuous-time stochastic differential equation having the same moments as stochastic gradient descent, which we call stochastic gradient flow. We give a bound on the excess risk of stochastic gradient flow at time $t$, over ridge regression with tuning parameter $\lambda = 1/t$. The bound may be computed from explicit constants (e.g., the mini-batch size, step size, number of iterations), revealing precisely how these quantities drive the excess risk. Numerical examples show the bound can be small, indicating a tight relationship between the two estimators. We give a similar result relating the coefficients of stochastic gradient flow and ridge. These results hold under no conditions on the data matrix $X$, and across the entire optimization path (not just at convergence).