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Random Teachers are Good Teachers

Felix Sarnthein · Gregor Bachmann · Sotiris Anagnostidis · Thomas Hofmann

Exhibit Hall 1 #629


In this work, we investigate the implicit regularization induced by teacher-student learning dynamics in self-distillation. To isolate its effect, we describe a simple experiment where we consider teachers at random initialization instead of trained teachers. Surprisingly, when distilling a student into such a random teacher, we observe that the resulting model and its representations already possess very interesting characteristics; (1) we observe a strong improvement of the distilled student over its teacher in terms of probing accuracy. (2) The learned representations are data-dependent and transferable between different tasks but deteriorate strongly if trained on random inputs. (3) The student checkpoint contains sparse subnetworks, so-called lottery tickets, and lies on the border of linear basins in the supervised loss landscape. These observations have interesting consequences for several important areas in machine learning: (1) Self-distillation can work solely based on the implicit regularization present in the gradient dynamics without relying on any dark knowledge, (2) self-supervised learning can learn features even in the absence of data augmentation and (3) training dynamics during the early phase of supervised training do not necessarily require label information. Finally, we shed light on an intriguing local property of the loss landscape: the process of feature learning is strongly amplified if the student is initialized closely to the teacher. These results raise interesting questions about the nature of the landscape that have remained unexplored so far. Code is available at

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