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Spotlight Poster

Schema-learning and rebinding as mechanisms of in-context learning and emergence

Sivaramakrishnan Swaminathan · Antoine Dedieu · Rajkumar Vasudeva Raju · Murray Shanahan · Miguel Lazaro-Gredilla · Dileep George

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #519
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[ Paper [ Slides [ Poster [ OpenReview
Tue 12 Dec 3:15 p.m. PST — 5:15 p.m. PST


In-context learning (ICL) is one of the most powerful and most unexpected capabilities to emerge in recent transformer-based large language models (LLMs). Yet the mechanisms that underlie it are poorly understood. In this paper, we demonstrate that comparable ICL capabilities can be acquired by an alternative sequence prediction learning method using clone-structured causal graphs (CSCGs). Moreover, a key property of CSCGs is that, unlike transformer-based LLMs, they are {\em interpretable}, which considerably simplifies the task of explaining how ICL works. Specifically, we show that it uses a combination of (a) learning template (schema) circuits for pattern completion, (b) retrieving relevant templates in a context-sensitive manner, and (c) rebinding of novel tokens to appropriate slots in the templates. We go on to marshall evidence for the hypothesis that similar mechanisms underlie ICL in LLMs. For example, we find that, with CSCGs as with LLMs, different capabilities emerge at different levels of overparameterization, suggesting that overparameterization helps in learning more complex template (schema) circuits. By showing how ICL can be achieved with small models and datasets, we open up a path to novel architectures, and take a vital step towards a more general understanding of the mechanics behind this important capability.

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