Emergent Mind

In-context Learning and Induction Heads

Published Sep 24, 2022 in cs.LG


"Induction heads" are attention heads that implement a simple algorithm to complete token sequences like [A][B] ... [A] -> [B]. In this work, we present preliminary and indirect evidence for a hypothesis that induction heads might constitute the mechanism for the majority of all "in-context learning" in large transformer models (i.e. decreasing loss at increasing token indices). We find that induction heads develop at precisely the same point as a sudden sharp increase in in-context learning ability, visible as a bump in the training loss. We present six complementary lines of evidence, arguing that induction heads may be the mechanistic source of general in-context learning in transformer models of any size. For small attention-only models, we present strong, causal evidence; for larger models with MLPs, we present correlational evidence.

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