Understanding the Behaviour of Contrastive Loss

Feng Wang, Huaping Liu; Proceedings of the IEEE/CVF Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), 2021, pp. 2495-2504


Unsupervised contrastive learning has achieved outstanding success, while the mechanism of contrastive loss has been less studied. In this paper, we concentrate on the understanding of the behaviours of unsupervised contrastive loss. We will show that the contrastive loss is a hardness-aware loss function, and the temperature t controls the strength of penalties on hard negative samples. The previous study has shown that uniformity is a key property of contrastive learning. We build relations between the uniformity and the temperature t. We will show that uniformity helps the contrastive learning to learn separable features, however excessive pursuit to the uniformity makes the contrastive loss not tolerant to semantically similar samples, which may break the underlying semantic structure and be harmful to the formation of features useful for downstream tasks. This is caused by the inherent defect of the instance discrimination objective. Specifically, instance discrimination objective tries to push all different instances apart, ignoring the underlying relations between samples. Pushing semantically consistent samples apart has no positive effect for acquiring a prior informative to general downstream tasks. A well-designed contrastive loss should have some extents of tolerance to the closeness of semantically similar samples. Therefore, we find that the contrastive loss meets a uniformity-tolerance dilemma, and a good choice of temperature can compromise these two properties properly to both learn separable features and tolerant to semantically similar samples, improving the feature qualities and the downstream performances.

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@InProceedings{Wang_2021_CVPR, author = {Wang, Feng and Liu, Huaping}, title = {Understanding the Behaviour of Contrastive Loss}, booktitle = {Proceedings of the IEEE/CVF Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR)}, month = {June}, year = {2021}, pages = {2495-2504} }