Online Continual Learning with Natural Distribution Shifts: An Empirical Study with Visual Data


Continual learning is the problem of learning and retaining knowledge through time over multiple tasks and environments. Research has primarily focused on the task-incremental setting, where a new task is added at discrete time intervals. Such an “offline” setting does not evaluate the ability of agents to learn effectively and efficiently, since an agent can perform multiple learning epochs without any time limitation when a task is added. We argue that “online” continual learning, where data is a single continuous stream without task boundaries, enables evaluating both information retention and online learning efficacy. In online continual learning, each incoming small batch of data is first used for testing and then added to the training set, making the problem truly online. Trained models are later evaluated on historical data to assess information retention. We introduce a new benchmark for online continual visual learning that exhibits large scale and natural distribution shifts. Through a large-scale analysis, we identify critical and previously unobserved phenomena of gradient-based optimization in continual learning, and propose effective strategies for improving gradient-based online continual learning with real data.