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# Theory on Forgetting and Generalization of Continual Learning

*Proceedings of the 40th International Conference on Machine Learning*, PMLR 202:21078-21100, 2023.

#### Abstract

Continual learning (CL), which aims to learn a sequence of tasks, has attracted significant recent attention. However, most work has focused on the experimental performance of CL, and theoretical studies of CL are still limited. In particular, there is a lack of understanding on what factors are important and how they affect "catastrophic forgetting" and generalization performance. To fill this gap, our theoretical analysis, under overparameterized linear models, provides the first-known explicit form of the expected forgetting and generalization error for a general CL setup with an arbitrary number of tasks. Further analysis of such a key result yields a number of theoretical explanations about how overparameterization, task similarity, and task ordering affect both forgetting and generalization error of CL. More interestingly, by conducting experiments on real datasets using deep neural networks (DNNs), we show that some of these insights even go beyond the linear models and can be carried over to practical setups. In particular, we use concrete examples to show that our results not only explain some interesting empirical observations in recent studies, but also motivate better practical algorithm designs of CL.