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Are Bert Family Good Instruction Followers? A Study on Their Potential And Limitations

yisheng xiao · Juntao Li · Zechen Sun · Zechang Li · Qingrong Xia · Xinyu Duan · Zhefeng Wang · Min Zhang

Halle B #64
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Thu 9 May 1:45 a.m. PDT — 3:45 a.m. PDT


Language modeling at scale has proven very effective and brought unprecedented success to natural language models. Many typical representatives, especially decoder-only models, e.g., BLOOM and LLaMA, and encoder-decoder models, e.g., Flan-T5 and AlexaTM, have exhibited incredible instruction-following capabilities while keeping strong task completion ability. These large language models can achieve superior performance in various tasks and even yield emergent capabilities, e.g., reasoning and universal generalization. Though the above two paradigms are mainstream and well explored, the potential of the BERT family, which are encoder-only based models and have ever been one of the most representative pre-trained models, also deserves attention, at least should be discussed. In this work, we adopt XML-R to explore the effectiveness of the BERT family for instruction following and zero-shot learning. We first design a simple yet effective strategy to utilize the encoder-only models for generation tasks and then conduct multi-task instruction tuning. Experimental results demonstrate that our fine-tuned model, Instruct-XMLR, outperforms Bloomz on all evaluation tasks and achieves comparable performance with mT0 on most tasks. Surprisingly, Instruct-XMLR also possesses strong task and language generalization abilities, indicating that Instruct-XMLR can also serve as a good instruction follower and zero-shot learner. Besides, Instruct-XMLR can accelerate decoding due to its non-autoregressive generation manner, achieving around 3 times speedup compared with current autoregressive large language models. Although we also witnessed several limitations through our experiments, such as the performance decline in long-generation tasks and the shortcoming of length prediction, Instruct-XMLR can still become a good member of the family of current large language models.

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