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Insights into Pre-training via Simpler Synthetic Tasks
Yuhuai Wu · Felix Li · Percy Liang

Thu Dec 01 02:00 PM -- 04:00 PM (PST) @ Hall J #640
Pre-training produces representations that are effective for a wide range of downstream tasks, but it is still unclear what properties of pre-training are necessary for effective gains. Notably, recent work shows that even pre-training on synthetic tasks can achieve significant gains in downstream tasks. In this work, we perform three experiments that iteratively simplify pre-training and show that the simplifications still retain much of its gains. First, building on prior work, we perform a systematic evaluation of three existing synthetic pre-training methods on six downstream tasks. We find the best synthetic pre-training method, LIME, attains an average of $67\%$ of the benefits of natural pre-training. Second, to our surprise, we find that pre-training on a simple and generic synthetic task defined by the set function achieves $65\%$ of the benefits, almost matching LIME. Third, we find that $39\%$ of the benefits can be attained by using merely the parameter statistics of synthetic pre-training. We release the source code at \url{https://github.com/felixzli/synthetic_pretraining}.

Author Information

Yuhuai Wu (Google)
Felix Li (University of California, Berkeley)
Percy Liang (Stanford University)
Percy Liang

Percy Liang is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University (B.S. from MIT, 2004; Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, 2011). His research spans machine learning and natural language processing, with the goal of developing trustworthy agents that can communicate effectively with people and improve over time through interaction. Specific topics include question answering, dialogue, program induction, interactive learning, and reliable machine learning. His awards include the IJCAI Computers and Thought Award (2016), an NSF CAREER Award (2016), a Sloan Research Fellowship (2015), and a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship (2014).

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