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Characterizing intrinsic compositionality in transformers with Tree Projections

Shikhar Murty · Pratyusha Sharma · Jacob Andreas · Christopher Manning

MH1-2-3-4 #37

Keywords: [ Applications ] [ compositionality ] [ hierarchical computation ] [ Unsupervised syntax ] [ transformers ]


Abstract:

When trained on language data, do transformers learn some arbitrary computation that utilizes the full capacity of the architecture or do they learn a simpler, tree-like computation, hypothesized to underlie compositional meaning systems like human languages? There is an apparent tension between compositional accounts of human language understanding, which are based on a restricted bottom-up computational process, and the enormous success of neural models like transformers, which can route information arbitrarily between different parts of their input. One possibility is that these models, while extremely flexible in principle, in practice learn to interpret language hierarchically, ultimately building sentence representations close to those predictable by a bottom-up, tree-structured model. To evaluate this possibility, we describe an unsupervised and parameter-free method to \emph{functionally project} the behavior of any transformer into the space of tree-structured networks. Given an input sentence, we produce a binary tree that approximates the transformer's representation-building process and a score that captures how ``tree-like'' the transformer's behavior is on the input. While calculation of this score does not require training any additional models, it provably upper-bounds the fit between a transformer and any tree-structured approximation. Using this method, we show that transformers for three different tasks become more tree-like over the course of training, in some cases unsupervisedly recovering the same trees as supervised parsers. These trees, in turn, are predictive of model behavior, with more tree-like models generalizing better on tests of compositional generalization.

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