Long Live the Lottery: The Existence of Winning Tickets in Lifelong Learning



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The lottery ticket hypothesis states that a highly sparsified sub-network can be trained in isolation, given the appropriate weight initialization. This paper extends that hypothesis from one-shot task learning, and demonstrates for the first time that such extremely compact and independently trainable sub-networks can be also identified in the lifelong learning scenario, which we call lifelong tickets. We show that the resulting lifelong ticket can further be leveraged to improve the performance of learning over continual tasks. However, it is highly non-trivial to conduct network pruning in the lifelong setting. Two critical roadblocks arise: i) As many tasks now arrive sequentially, finding tickets in a greedy weight pruning fashion will inevitably suffer from the intrinsic bias, that the earlier emerging tasks impact more; ii) As lifelong learning is consistently challenged by catastrophic forgetting, the compact network capacity of tickets might amplify the risk of forgetting. In view of those, we introduce two pruning options, e.g., top-down and bottom-up, for finding lifelong tickets. Compared to the top-down pruning that extends vanilla (iterative) pruning over sequential tasks, we show that the bottom-up one, which can dynamically shrink and (re-)expand model capacity, effectively avoids the undesirable excessive pruning in the early stage. We additionally introduce lottery teaching that further overcomes forgetting via knowledge distillation aided by external unlabeled data. Unifying those ingredients, we demonstrate the existence of very competitive lifelong tickets, e.g., achieving 3-8% of the dense model size with even higher accuracy, compared to strong class-incremental learning baselines on CIFAR-10/CIFAR-100/Tiny-ImageNet datasets. Codes available at

This paper has been published at ICLR 2021

Please cite our work using the BibTeX below.

title={Long Live the Lottery: The Existence of Winning Tickets in Lifelong Learning},
author={Tianlong Chen and Zhenyu Zhang and Sijia Liu and Shiyu Chang and Zhangyang Wang},
booktitle={International Conference on Learning Representations},
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