A headshot of Benjamin Grimmer wearing a dark blue hoodie.

A recent issue of Quanta Magazine featured a story spotlighting new research by Assistant Professor Benjamin Grimmer. Grimmer’s study has challenged a long-accepted rule in optimization techniques, particularly gradient descent.

His study has shown that gradient descent can work nearly three times faster if it breaks the conventional wisdom of taking small steps and instead incorporates larger steps, especially in the middle of the optimization process. This counterintuitive finding challenges the existing understanding of the technique and has prompted researchers to reconsider their knowledge of gradient descent.

Gradient descent involves iteratively moving towards the lowest point on a cost function curve, representing the optimization problem. Researchers have traditionally favored small steps to avoid overshooting the solution. However, Grimmer’s research suggests that taking larger steps at specific points in the optimization process can significantly accelerate convergence to the optimal solution.

While Grimmer’s findings have the potential to reshape how researchers think about gradient descent, they are primarily applicable to smooth and convex functions, which are less common in practical, complex optimization problems like those encountered in machine learning. Advanced machine learning optimization techniques often incorporate additional complexities, and Grimmer’s approach may not provide a substantial advantage in these cases.

Despite the promising speedup observed in certain scenarios, some experts remain skeptical about whether these insights will lead to a significant improvement in real-world applications. Nonetheless, Grimmer’s study has introduced a novel perspective on gradient descent, emphasizing the importance of larger, strategically placed steps in certain optimization processes. It also raises intriguing theoretical questions about the underlying structure governing these optimal step patterns, which researchers have yet to fully explain.