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Charformer: Fast Character Transformers via Gradient-based Subword Tokenization

Yi Tay · Vinh Tran · Sebastian Ruder · Jai Gupta · Hyung Won Chung · Dara Bahri · Zhen Qin · Simon Baumgartner · Cong Yu · Donald Metzler

Keywords: [ nlp ] [ language ] [ transformers ]


State-of-the-art models in natural language processing rely on separate rigid subword tokenization algorithms, which limit their generalization ability and adaptation to new settings. In this paper, we propose a new model inductive bias that learns a subword tokenization end-to-end as part of the model. To this end, we introduce a soft gradient-based subword tokenization module (GBST) that automatically learns latent subword representations from characters in a data-driven fashion. Concretely, GBST enumerates candidate subword blocks and learns to score them in a position-wise fashion using a block scoring network. We additionally introduce Charformer, a deep Transformer model that integrates GBST and operates on the character level. Via extensive experiments on English GLUE, multilingual, and noisy text datasets, we show that Charformer outperforms a series of competitive character-level baselines while generally performing on par and sometimes outperforming subword-based models. Additionally, Charformer is fast, improving the speed of vanilla character-level Transformers by up to while maintaining quality. We believe this work paves the way for highly performant token-free models that are trained completely end-to-end.

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