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Oral Poster

Bridging Discrete and Backpropagation: Straight-Through and Beyond

Liyuan Liu · Chengyu Dong · Xiaodong Liu · Bin Yu · Jianfeng Gao

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #503
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Tue 12 Dec 3:15 p.m. PST — 5:15 p.m. PST
Oral presentation: Oral 2A Efficient Learning
Tue 12 Dec 1:40 p.m. PST — 2:40 p.m. PST


Backpropagation, the cornerstone of deep learning, is limited to computing gradients for continuous variables. This limitation poses challenges for problems involving discrete latent variables. To address this issue, we propose a novel approach to approximate the gradient of parameters involved in generating discrete latent variables. First, we examine the widely used Straight-Through (ST) heuristic and demonstrate that it works as a first-order approximation of the gradient. Guided by our findings, we propose ReinMax, which achieves second-order accuracy by integrating Heun’s method, a second-order numerical method for solving ODEs. ReinMax does not require Hessian or other second-order derivatives, thus having negligible computation overheads. Extensive experimental results on various tasks demonstrate the superiority of ReinMax over the state of the art.

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