Lion Optimisation 🦁

Published April 19, 2023


9 min read

Image of Mika Senghaas

Mika Senghaas

Welcome to AITU’s weekly blog post! 🙌 After weeks of high-level readings in the space of large language models, this week we returned to one of the core building blocks in any neural network: the optimisation algorithm, which allows neural networks to learn from data.

In this blog post we will explain the core idea of gradient-descent based optimisation of neural networks and then dive into a fascinating new optimisation algorithm called Lion (again a creative acronym for EvoLved Sign Momentum), which was recently published by a research team at Google Brain. They claim that Lion outperforms the current state-of-the-art optimisation algorithm AdamW on a wide range of tasks.

Our group was fascinated with how the research team at Google derived the new optimisation algorithm and we are excited to share our thoughts with you. Let’s get started! 🦁

💡 Gradient-Descent Based Optimisation

Before we dive into the details of the Lion algorithm, let’s first recap the core idea of optimisation: Optimisation theory is a branch of mathematics that is concerned with one specific question:

How do we find the values of a function that minimises/ maximises the value of the function?

For illustration purposes, let’s consider a function f that takes a single argument x and returns a single value f(x). Also, let’s constrain ourselves to minimisation problems because any maximisation problem can be turned into a minimisation problem (by realising that the maximum of a function is the minimum of the negative function).

The goal is to find a value x0, such that f(x0) is smaller than the value f(x) for any other value x. Figure 3 visualises how such a minimum looks like in two-dimensional space.

Drawing of Minimisation Problem

Figure 1: The Minimisation Problem in Mathematics

For simple forms of f calculus gives us all the tools we need to find the value x0 that minimises the function. However, for more complex functions (such as the loss function in neural network training), it is often not possible to find an analytical (read: mathematical) solution. In these cases, we need to resort to optimisation theory. The goal in optimisation theory is to find an algorithmic (read: step-by-step) solution to obtain the values that minimises a function.

The most commonly used algorithmic approach is called gradient descent, which makes use of the concept that a function’s value decreases fastest if we move in the opposite direction of the function’s gradient. Because of this, taking small steps in the opposite direction of the gradient will eventually lead to the minimum/ maximum value of the function. This leads to the classical gradient-descent algorithm:

  1. Initialise the value of x to a random value x0.
  2. Compute the gradient of f at x.
  3. Update x by subtracting the gradient from x (update rule)
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until convergence.

The iterative procedure is visualised in Figure 2. Here x0 is a random initial guessed, which is then updated by the update rule based on the gradient. As can be seen, the update rule is the key to the gradient descent algorithm.

Simplified Drawing of Gradient Descent Optimisation

Figure 2: Simplified Illustration of Gradient Descent Optimisation

Unfortunately, this simple update rule was often shown to not be sufficient to train large neural networks. Problems arise, for example, when the learning rate is too high, which can lead to the model diverging, or too low, which can lead to a painfully slow convergence.

For this reason, it is an ongoing topic of research to design new gradient-based update rules, that make the training of large neural networks more stable and efficient. Over the past decades, researchers have come up with many concepts such as momentum, adaptive learning rates, weight decay, and many more. Most of these concepts are based on heuristics derived from real-world experience.

🔭 Discovering New Update Rules

Instead of figuring out a new update rule by hand, the team at Google Brain decided to discover a new update rule. This is a very exciting approach, because it allows us to automatically find new update rules that are optimal for a given task. In the first sentence of their paper they describe their approach as follows:

Algorithm Discovery as Program Search

There is a lot to unpack in this sentence, so let’s take it one step at a time. To understand what formulating the discovery of algorithms (in this case: update rules for gradient descent optimisation) as a program search requires some preliminary work.

✨ Defining the Search Space. Before you search something, you better define what you are searching for. In this case, the search space is the set of all possible update rules that mankind can think of. Since an update rule can be written as an executable program (i.e. a sequence of instructions), the search space is the set of all possible programs that can be written in a programming language. The team at Google decided to narrow down the space a bit, by limiting the set of allowed instructions to include for example assignment operations and the most common math operations. Even with this limitation, the search space is infinitely large. Not only that - it is also very sparse. This means that out out the huge number of possible programs, only a very small fraction of them actually perform well. The research team validated this by generating two million random programs. Not a single of these programs performed better than AdamW.

Nice, we know what we are searching for. But since the search space is so large and sparse, just randomly guessing a program and hoping it will be better than current state-of-the-art does not work. The Google Brain team came up with a series of clever idea to make the search more efficient. At the core, they take inspiration from process of evolution from nature.

Evolution is the process in nature that leads to the development of new species, and is - in simple terms - based on the fact that random mutations in species might increase their chance of survival and therefore increase their production rate.

🧬 Genetic Algorithms. Because of the impressive emergence of life that we witness in nature everyday, scientists have tried to apply evolutionary principles to other areas of science. Genetic Algorithms are one example of this. They are search algorithms that are based on the principles of natural evolution. The Google Team used a genetic algorithm to search for new update rules. First, they generated a population of P random programs. Then, they randomly chose T < P of these programs and evaluated each. The best-performing program was selected as the parent and copied. The resulting child was mutated and added to the population by replacing the oldest program in the population. The process was then repeated many and many times until the overall population’s performance converged.

There are a couple of concepts in this algorithm procedure that we need to explain. First, the fitness of a program in the population was measured by training a simple neural network on simple proxy task. As all programs (update rules) were trained on the same proxy task, the fitness of the update rule could be measured as the downstream performance (e.g. validation accuracy) of the neural network. Secondly, programs were mutated in three different ways. They could be mutated by…

  • inserting a new statement,
  • deleting a statement, or
  • …randomly modifying a single statement in the program

With all this, they could run an evolutionary search on the search space of update rules. However, the search was found to take too long to converge, and the team employed further clever tricks to make the search even more efficient.

To speed up the evolutionary search, the team at Google Brain employed a series of clever tricks. The most important ones are:

🔥 Warm Start. This is a relatively straightforward one. Instead of starting from a completely random population, the team at Google Brain started from a population of P update rules that are known to perform well, like AdamW.

🌴 Dynamic Pruning. Dynamic pruning is used to prevent the evolutionary algorithm from producing redundant or malfunctioning programs over time. Each cycle checks the mutated children and discards them if they have errors or are redundant with an existing algorithm in the population.

🕳️ Funnel Selection. After the evolutionary search, there is a risk for update rules being meta-overfitted to the proxy tasks, meaning that they perform well on the proxy tasks but poorly on general tasks. To prevent this, the team employed a funnel selection procedure. The idea is to select the best performing programs on increasingly complex (novel) tasks.

➖ Simplification. From the small set of programs that were selected by the funnel selection procedure, the team at Google Brain selected the overall “best” program to be the most simple one. This was motivated by the heuristic that the more simple a program, the more likely it is to generalise well to new tasks.

🦁 Finding Lion

The algorithm that was left: The EvoLved Sign Momentum (Lion) optimization algorithm. Lion is a simple and effective optimization algorithm that is more memory-efficient than Adam since it only keeps track of momentum. It also has the same magnitude of update for each parameter, unlike adaptive optimizers. You can see the pseudo-code for the full algorithm below:


Figure 3: Pseudo-Code for Lion.

🔮 Key Takeaways

🧠 Neuro-Evolution. Evolutionary search and gradient-descent are both optimisation techniques. On a meta-level, it is fascinating to see that we use one (evolutionary search) to improve the other (gradient-based update rules). This interesting subfield is referred to as neuro-evolution.

🌳 Biomimicry. Science taking inspiration from nature is a common pattern that we have seen many times before (e.g. neural network architecture). However, employing the evolution principle to algorithm discovery was new and fascinating to read about.

🦁 Lion. Lion is a new optimisation algorithm that was discovered through the use of evolutionary search. It is a simple and effective algorithm that outperforms state-of-the-art algorithm AdamW on a variety of tasks.

📈 Compound Effect. Even tiny improvements in core building blocks of neural networks and their training (optimisation algorithms, matrix multiplication, etc.) have the potential to have a large impact on the overall performance of the network. Lion is one example of this. Minor changes in the update rule lead to improvements in downstream performance of up to 2% on some tasks.

📣 Stay in touch

That’s it for this week. We hope you enjoyed reading this post. 😊 To stay updated about our activities, make sure you give us a follow on LinkedIn. Any questions or ideas for talks, collaboration, etc.? Drop us a message at