Stabilizing the Lottery Ticket Hypothesis


Pruning is a well-established technique for removing unnecessary structure from neural networks after training to improve the performance of inference. Several recent results have explored the possibility of pruning at initialization time to provide similar benefits during training. In particular, the "lottery ticket hypothesis" conjectures that typical neural networks contain small subnetworks that can train to similar accuracy in a commensurate number of steps. The evidence for this claim is that a procedure based on iterative magnitude pruning (IMP) reliably finds such subnetworks retroactively on small vision tasks. However, IMP fails on deeper networks, and proposed methods to prune before training or train pruned networks encounter similar scaling limitations. In this paper, we argue that these efforts have struggled on deeper networks because they have focused on pruning precisely at initialization. We modify IMP to search for subnetworks that could have been obtained by pruning early in training (0.1% to 7% through) rather than at iteration 0. With this change, it finds small subnetworks of deeper networks (e.g., 80% sparsity on Resnet-50) that can complete the training process to match the accuracy of the original network on more challenging tasks (e.g., ImageNet). In situations where IMP fails at iteration 0, the accuracy benefits of delaying pruning accrue rapidly over the earliest iterations of training. To explain these behaviors, we study subnetwork "stability", finding that - as accuracy improves in this fashion - IMP subnetworks train to parameters closer to those of the full network and do so with improved consistency in the face of gradient noise. These results offer new insights into the opportunity to prune large-scale networks early in training and the behaviors underlying the lottery ticket hypothesis.