Learning Quantized Neural Nets by Coarse Gradient Method for Non-linear Classification

Ziang Long, Penghang Yin, Jack Xin

Quantized or low-bit neural networks are attractive due to their inference efficiency. However, training deep neural networks with quantized activations involves minimizing a discontinuous and piecewise constant loss function. Such a loss function has zero gradients almost everywhere (a.e.), which makes the conventional gradient-based algorithms inapplicable. To this end, we study a novel class of \emph{biased} first-order oracle, termed coarse gradient, for overcoming the vanished gradient issue. A coarse gradient is generated by replacing the a.e. zero derivatives of quantized (i.e., stair-case) ReLU activation composited in the chain rule with some heuristic proxy derivative called straight-through estimator (STE). Although having been widely used in training quantized networks empirically, fundamental questions like when and why the ad-hoc STE trick works, still lacks theoretical understanding. In this paper, we propose a class of STEs with certain monotonicity, and consider their applications to the training of a two-linear-layer network with quantized activation functions for non-linear multi-category classification. We establish performance guarantees for the proposed STEs by showing that the corresponding coarse gradient methods converge to the global minimum, which leads to a perfect classification. Lastly, we present experimental results on synthetic data as well as MNIST dataset to verify our theoretical findings and demonstrate the effectiveness of our proposed STEs.

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