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Quantizable Transformers: Removing Outliers by Helping Attention Heads Do Nothing

Yelysei Bondarenko · Markus Nagel · Tijmen Blankevoort

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #707
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[ Paper [ Poster [ OpenReview
Thu 14 Dec 3 p.m. PST — 5 p.m. PST


Transformer models have been widely adopted in various domains over the last years and especially large language models have advanced the field of AI significantly. Due to their size, the capability of these networks has increased tremendously, but this has come at the cost of a significant increase in necessary compute. Quantization is one of the most effective ways for reducing the computational time and memory consumption of neural networks. Many studies have shown, however, that modern transformer models tend to learn strong outliers in their activations, making them difficult to quantize. To retain acceptable performance, the existence of these outliers requires activations to be in higher-bitwidth or the use of different numeric formats, extra fine-tuning, or other workarounds. We show that strong outliers are related to very specific behavior of attention heads that try to learn a "no-op", or just a partial update of the residual. To achieve the exact zeros needed in the attention matrix for a no-update, the input to the softmax is pushed to be larger and larger during training, causing outliers in other parts of the network. Based on these observations, we propose two simple (independent) modifications to the attention mechanism - clipped softmax and gated attention. We empirically show that models pre-trained using our methods learn significantly smaller outliers while maintaining and sometimes even improving the floating-point task performance. This enables us to quantize transformers to full INT8 quantization of the activations without any additional effort. We demonstrate the effectiveness of our methods on both language models (BERT, OPT) and vision transformers.

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