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# Critical feature learning in deep neural networks

*Proceedings of the 41st International Conference on Machine Learning*, PMLR 235:13660-13690, 2024.

#### Abstract

A key property of neural networks driving their success is their ability to learn features from data. Understanding feature learning from a theoretical viewpoint is an emerging field with many open questions. In this work we capture finite-width effects with a systematic theory of network kernels in deep non-linear neural networks. We show that the Bayesian prior of the network can be written in closed form as a superposition of Gaussian processes, whose kernels are distributed with a variance that depends inversely on the network width $N$. A large deviation approach, which is exact in the proportional limit for the number of data points $P=\alpha N\to\infty$, yields a pair of forward-backward equations for the maximum a posteriori kernels in all layers at once. We study their solutions perturbatively, to demonstrate how the backward propagation across layers aligns kernels with the target. An alternative field-theoretic formulation shows that kernel adaptation of the Bayesian posterior at finite-width results from fluctuations in the prior: larger fluctuations correspond to a more flexible network prior and thus enable stronger adaptation to data. We thus find a bridge between the classical edge-of-chaos NNGP theory and feature learning, exposing an intricate interplay between criticality, response functions, and feature scale.