On the Adversarial Robustness of Visual Transformers

Rulin Shao, Zhouxing Shi, Jinfeng Yi, Pin-Yu Chen, Cho-Jui Hsieh

Following the success in advancing natural language processing and understanding, transformers are expected to bring revolutionary changes to computer vision. This work provides the first and comprehensive study on the robustness of vision transformers (ViTs) against adversarial perturbations. Tested on various white-box and transfer attack settings, we find that ViTs possess better adversarial robustness when compared with convolutional neural networks (CNNs). We summarize the following main observations contributing to the improved robustness of ViTs: 1) Features learned by ViTs contain less low-level information and are more generalizable, which contributes to superior robustness against adversarial perturbations. 2) Introducing convolutional or tokens-to-token blocks for learning low-level features in ViTs can improve classification accuracy but at the cost of adversarial robustness. 3) Increasing the proportion of transformers in the model structure (when the model consists of both transformer and CNN blocks) leads to better robustness. But for a pure transformer model, simply increasing the size or adding layers cannot guarantee a similar effect. 4) Pre-training on larger datasets does not significantly improve adversarial robustness though it is critical for training ViTs. 5) Adversarial training is also applicable to ViT for training robust models. Furthermore, feature visualization and frequency analysis are conducted for explanation. The results show that ViTs are less sensitive to high-frequency perturbations than CNNs and there is a high correlation between how well the model learns low-level features and its robustness against different frequency-based perturbations.

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