Approximating How Single Head Attention Learns

13 Mar 2021  ·  Charlie Snell, Ruiqi Zhong, Dan Klein, Jacob Steinhardt ·

Why do models often attend to salient words, and how does this evolve throughout training? We approximate model training as a two stage process: early on in training when the attention weights are uniform, the model learns to translate individual input word `i` to `o` if they co-occur frequently. Later, the model learns to attend to `i` while the correct output is $o$ because it knows `i` translates to `o`. To formalize, we define a model property, Knowledge to Translate Individual Words (KTIW) (e.g. knowing that `i` translates to `o`), and claim that it drives the learning of the attention. This claim is supported by the fact that before the attention mechanism is learned, KTIW can be learned from word co-occurrence statistics, but not the other way around. Particularly, we can construct a training distribution that makes KTIW hard to learn, the learning of the attention fails, and the model cannot even learn the simple task of copying the input words to the output. Our approximation explains why models sometimes attend to salient words, and inspires a toy example where a multi-head attention model can overcome the above hard training distribution by improving learning dynamics rather than expressiveness. We end by discussing the limitation of our approximation framework and suggest future directions.

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