Towards a Unified Theoretical Understanding of Non-contrastive Learning via Rank Differential Mechanism

ICLR 2023(2023)

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Recently, a lot of advances in self-supervised visual learning are brought about by contrastive learning that aligns positive pairs while pushing negative pairs apart. Surprisingly, a variety of new methods, such as BYOL, SimSiam, SwAV, DINO, shows that when equipped with some architectural asymmetric designs, aligning positive pairs alone is sufficient to attain good performance. However, it is still not fully clear how these seemingly different asymmetric designs can avoid feature collapse. Despite some understandings of some specific modules (like the predictor in BYOL), there is yet no unified theoretical understanding, particularly for those who also work without the predictor (like DINO). In this work, we propose a new understanding for non-contrastive learning, named the Rank Differential Mechanism (RDM). We show that these asymmetric designs all create a consistent difference in the dual-branch outputs as measured by their effective rank. This rank difference will provably lead to an improvement of effective dimensionality and alleviate either complete or dimensional feature collapse. Different from previous theories, our RDM theory is applicable to different asymmetric designs (with and without the predictor), and thus can serve as a unified understanding of existing non-contrastive learning methods. Besides, our RDM theory also provides practical guidelines for designing many new non-contrastive variants. We show that these variants indeed achieve comparable performance to existing methods on benchmark datasets, and some of them even outperform the baselines.
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