Language models are weak learners

NeurIPS 2023  ·  Hariharan Manikandan, Yiding Jiang, J Zico Kolter ·

A central notion in practical and theoretical machine learning is that of a $\textit{weak learner}$, classifiers that achieve better-than-random performance (on any given distribution over data), even by a small margin. Such weak learners form the practical basis for canonical machine learning methods such as boosting. In this work, we illustrate that prompt-based large language models can operate effectively as said weak learners. Specifically, we illustrate the use of a large language model (LLM) as a weak learner in a boosting algorithm applied to tabular data. We show that by providing (properly sampled according to the distribution of interest) text descriptions of tabular data samples, LLMs can produce a summary of the samples that serves as a template for classification and achieves the aim of acting as a weak learner on this task. We incorporate these models into a boosting approach, which in some settings can leverage the knowledge within the LLM to outperform traditional tree-based boosting. The model outperforms both few-shot learning and occasionally even more involved fine-tuning procedures, particularly for tasks involving small numbers of data points. The results illustrate the potential for prompt-based LLMs to function not just as few-shot learners themselves, but as components of larger machine learning pipelines.

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