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Oral

Transformers as Statisticians: Provable In-Context Learning with In-Context Algorithm Selection

Yu Bai · Fan Chen · Huan Wang · Caiming Xiong · Song Mei

Room R06-R09 (level 2)
[ ] [ Visit Oral 4C COT/reasoning ]
Wed 13 Dec 2 p.m. — 2:15 p.m. PST

Abstract:

Neural sequence models based on the transformer architecture have demonstrated remarkable \emph{in-context learning} (ICL) abilities, where they can perform new tasks when prompted with training and test examples, without any parameter update to the model. This work first provides a comprehensive statistical theory for transformers to perform ICL. Concretely, we show that transformers can implement a broad class of standard machine learning algorithms in context, such as least squares, ridge regression, Lasso, learning generalized linear models, and gradient descent on two-layer neural networks, with near-optimal predictive power on various in-context data distributions. Using an efficient implementation of in-context gradient descent as the underlying mechanism, our transformer constructions admit mild size bounds, and can be learned with polynomially many pretraining sequences. Building on these ``base'' ICL algorithms, intriguingly, we show that transformers can implement more complex ICL procedures involving \emph{in-context algorithm selection}, akin to what a statistician can do in real life---A \emph{single} transformer can adaptively select different base ICL algorithms---or even perform qualitatively different tasks---on different input sequences, without any explicit prompting of the right algorithm or task. We both establish this in theory by explicit constructions, and also observe this phenomenon experimentally. In theory, we construct two general mechanisms for algorithm selection with concrete examples: pre-ICL testing, and post-ICL validation. As an example, we use the post-ICL validation mechanism to construct a transformer that can perform nearly Bayes-optimal ICL on a challenging task---noisy linear models with mixed noise levels. Experimentally, we demonstrate the strong in-context algorithm selection capabilities of standard transformer architectures.

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