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One Step of Gradient Descent is Provably the Optimal In-Context Learner with One Layer of Linear Self-Attention

Arvind Mahankali · Tatsunori Hashimoto · Tengyu Ma

Halle B #237
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Thu 9 May 1:45 a.m. PDT — 3:45 a.m. PDT

Abstract: Recent works have empirically analyzed in-context learning and shown that transformers trained on synthetic linear regression tasks can learn to implement ridge regression, which is the Bayes-optimal predictor, given sufficient capacity (Akyurek et al., 2023), while one-layer transformers with linear self-attention and no MLP layer will learn to implement one step of gradient descent (GD) on a least-squares linear regression objective (von Oswald et al., 2022). However, the theory behind these observations remains poorly understood. We theoretically study transformers with a single layer of linear self-attention, trained on synthetic noisy linear regression data. First, we mathematically show that when the covariates are drawn from a standard Gaussian distribution, the one-layer transformer which minimizes the pre-training loss will implement a single step of GD on the least-squares linear regression objective. Then, we find that changing the distribution of the covariates and weight vector to a non-isotropic Gaussian distribution has a strong impact on the learned algorithm: the global minimizer of the pre-training loss now implements a single step of $\textit{pre-conditioned}$ GD. However, if only the distribution of the responses is changed, then this does not have a large effect on the learned algorithm: even when the response comes from a more general family of $\textit{nonlinear}$ functions, the global minimizer of the pre-training loss still implements a single step of GD on a least-squares linear regression objective.

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