Emergent Mind

Explaining Emergent In-Context Learning as Kernel Regression

Published May 22, 2023 in cs.CL , cs.AI , and cs.LG


Large language models (LLMs) have initiated a paradigm shift in transfer learning. In contrast to the classic pretraining-then-finetuning procedure, in order to use LLMs for downstream prediction tasks, one only needs to provide a few demonstrations, known as in-context examples, without adding more or updating existing model parameters. This in-context learning (ICL) capability of LLMs is intriguing, and it is not yet fully understood how pretrained LLMs acquire such capabilities. In this paper, we investigate the reason why a transformer-based language model can accomplish in-context learning after pre-training on a general language corpus by proposing one hypothesis that LLMs can simulate kernel regression with internal representations when faced with in-context examples. More concretely, we first prove that Bayesian inference on in-context prompts can be asymptotically understood as kernel regression $\hat y = \sum_i y_i K(x, x_i)/\sum_i K(x, x_i)$ as the number of in-context demonstrations grows. Then, we empirically investigate the in-context behaviors of language models. We find that during ICL, the attention and hidden features in LLMs match the behaviors of a kernel regression. Finally, our theory provides insights into multiple phenomena observed in the ICL field: why retrieving demonstrative samples similar to test samples can help, why ICL performance is sensitive to the output formats, and why ICL accuracy benefits from selecting in-distribution and representative samples.

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