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Workshop: MATH-AI: The 3rd Workshop on Mathematical Reasoning and AI

Teaching Arithmetic to Small Transformers

Nayoung Lee · Kartik Sreenivasan · Jason Lee · Kangwook Lee · Dimitris Papailiopoulos

Keywords: [ transformers ] [ Large language models ] [ machine learning ]


Large language models like GPT-4 exhibit emergent capabilities across general-purpose tasks, such as basic arithmetic, when trained on extensive text data, even though these tasks are not explicitly encoded by the unsupervised, next-token prediction objective. This study investigates how even small transformers, trained from random initialization, can efficiently learn arithmetic operations such as addition, multiplication, and elementary functions like square root, using the next-token prediction objective. We first demonstrate that conventional training data is not the most effective for arithmetic learning, and simple formatting changes can significantly improve accuracy. This leads to sharp phase transitions as a function of training data scale, which, in some cases, can be explained through connections to low-rank matrix completion. Building on prior work, we then train on chain-of-thought style data that includes intermediate step results. Even in the complete absence of pretraining, this approach significantly and simultaneously improves accuracy, sample complexity, and convergence speed. We also study the interplay between arithmetic and text data during training and examine the effects of few-shot prompting, pretraining, and parameter scaling. Additionally, we discuss the challenges associated with length generalization. Our work highlights the importance of high-quality, instructive data that considers the particular characteristics of the next-word prediction loss for rapidly eliciting arithmetic capabilities.

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