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Which Models have Perceptually-Aligned Gradients? An Explanation via Off-Manifold Robustness

Suraj Srinivas · Sebastian Bordt · Himabindu Lakkaraju

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #722


One of the remarkable properties of robust computer vision models is that their input-gradients are often aligned with human perception, referred to in the literature as perceptually-aligned gradients (PAGs). Despite only being trained for classification, PAGs cause robust models to have rudimentary generative capabilities, including image generation, denoising, and in-painting. However, the underlying mechanisms behind these phenomena remain unknown. In this work, we provide a first explanation of PAGs via \emph{off-manifold robustness}, which states that models must be more robust off- the data manifold than they are on-manifold. We first demonstrate theoretically that off-manifold robustness leads input gradients to lie approximately on the data manifold, explaining their perceptual alignment. We then show that Bayes optimal models satisfy off-manifold robustness, and confirm the same empirically for robust models trained via gradient norm regularization, randomized smoothing, and adversarial training with projected gradient descent. Quantifying the perceptual alignment of model gradients via their similarity with the gradients of generative models, we show that off-manifold robustness correlates well with perceptual alignment. Finally, based on the levels of on- and off-manifold robustness, we identify three different regimes of robustness that affect both perceptual alignment and model accuracy: weak robustness, bayes-aligned robustness, and excessive robustness. Code is available at

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