Targeted Dropout

Neural networks can represent functions to solve complex tasks that are difficult — if not impossible — to write instructions for by hand, such as understanding language and recognizing objects. Conveniently, we’ve seen that task performance increases as we use larger networks. However, the increase in computational costs also increases dollars and time required to train and use models. Practitioners are plagued with networks that are too large to store in on-device memory, or too slow for real-world utility.

Networks are overparameterized

Progress made in network sparsification has presented post-hoc (after training) methods that allow us to remove parameters in a neural network and then fine tune the leftover parameters to achieve a similar task performance. The trade off here is that it makes the process of training and preparing a model for evaluation more complex – requiring surgical procedures for pruning the networks, and repeated iterations of training. Fortunately, the results from network pruning suggest that neural networks can still represent interesting functions with only a fraction of the total network parameters. And with smaller parameter sizes, we can reduce the costs of computing with neural networks. Unfortunately, for many real world use cases, task performance is a non-negotiable cost.

The Lottery Ticket Hypothesis presents the idea that a large neural network can be represented by a small subnetwork termed the “winning ticket”. When winning ticket is trained in alone – with its weights reset to their initial values – it achieves task performance competitive with the full network. This idea suggests that, if we can find smaller winning ticket subnetworks, then we can achieve a smaller parameter size without a task performance sacrifice.

Understanding parameter importance

To take advantage of the ideas we’ve learned so far, we have to understand how to judge the importance of weights. To do this we can study the coadaptation matrix of the neural network’s parameters after training is complete.

Position (i, j) of the matrix represents the dependence of parameter i on parameter j. Pruning a set of weights {l, m, n} will change the loss proportional to the sum of the entries describing the the dependence within the {l, m ,n} subnetwork (i.e entries (l,l), (m,m), (n,n), (l,m), (l,n), (m,n), (m,l), (n,l), and (n,m)). In the figure, the weights are ordered by decreasing magnitude from left to right, top to bottom. As we can see from this matrix, the neural network still has some dependence on low magnitude weights (those towards the right and bottom), which suggests that sparisfying based on weight magnitude will have an significant impact on task performance.

Targeted Dropout

This leads to Targeted Dropout, our approach for identifying the winning ticket and controlling its size. At every forward pass during training, we apply stochastic dropout to some “targeted portion” of the network, which are the least important parameters (losing tickets), based on some approximation of importance (i.e. weight magnitude, unit norm). After training, we can remove the least important parameters because the network is no longer dependent on the targeted portion. Finally, we are left with a network containing only the winning ticket.

Let’s study the coadaptation matrix of a network after its trained with targeted dropout. In this case, we set the targeted portion to be 75%, because we hope to use only 25% of the parameters after training. It is clear that all the high magnitude weights are only dependent on one another. Since this is the case, we can safely remove 75% of the least important parameters without removing any dependence amongst weights.

Empirically we saw that our technique is generally applicable to different architectures (ResNet32, VGG, Transformer) solving different task domains (translation, image classification). Networks trained with TD were extremely robust to post-hoc pruning. With an additional adaptation of gradually increasing the target portion during training, we can achieve up to 99.1% sparsity while only losing around 3-4% in task performance. More results and hyperparameters can be reviewed in the Experiments section of our paper.


The algorithm is simple to implement and can be applied to a networks weights or units:

Reference implementation for weight-level targeted dropout written in Tensorflow:


Lottery Ticket Hypothesis inspired a new way to think about neural networks. We’ve shown with Targeted Dropout that we can manipulate the size of this winning lottery ticket. Targeted dropout is a regularization technique that generalizes across architectures and is simple to implement. We hope to see more progress in the field of network sparsification so that neural networks can see more application in the real world, and so that we can develop a better understanding of measuring parameter importance.