Transformers learn in-context by (functional) gradient descent

September 10, 3:15pm
- September 10, 4:15pm

Speaker(s):Xiang Cheng (Duke University, Electrical and Computer Engineering)

Motivated by the in-context learning phenomenon, we investigate how the Transformer neural network can implement learning algorithms in its forward pass. We show that a linear Transformer naturally learns to implement gradient descent, which enables it to learn linear functions in-context. More generally, we show that a non-linear Transformer can implement functional gradient descent with respect to some RKHS metric, which allows it to learn a broad class of functions in-context. Additionally, we show that the RKHS metric is determined by the choice of attention activation, and that the optimal choice of attention activation depends in a natural way on the class of functions that need to be learned. I will end by discussing some implications of our results for the choice and design of Transformer architectures.