Understanding Optimal Feature Transfer via a Fine-Grained Bias-Variance Analysis


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In the transfer learning paradigm models learn useful representations (or features) during a data-rich pretraining stage, and then use the pretrained representation to improve model performance on data-scarce downstream tasks. In this work, we explore transfer learning with the goal of optimizing downstream performance. We introduce a simple linear model that takes as input an arbitrary pretrained feature transform. We derive exact asymptotics of the downstream risk and its fine-grained bias-variance decomposition. Our finding suggests that using the ground-truth featurization can result in "double-divergence" of the asymptotic risk, indicating that it is not necessarily optimal for downstream performance. We then identify the optimal pretrained representation by minimizing the asymptotic downstream risk averaged over an ensemble of downstream tasks. Our analysis reveals the relative importance of learning the task-relevant features and structures in the data covariates and characterizes how each contributes to controlling the downstream risk from a bias-variance perspective. Moreover, we uncover a phase transition phenomenon where the optimal pretrained representation transitions from hard to soft selection of relevant features and discuss its connection to principal component regression.
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