Transformers generalize differently from information stored in context vs in weights


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Transformer models can use two fundamentally different kinds of information: information stored in weights during training, and information provided ``in-context'' at inference time. In this work, we show that transformers exhibit different inductive biases in how they represent and generalize from the information in these two sources. In particular, we characterize whether they generalize via parsimonious rules (rule-based generalization) or via direct comparison with observed examples (exemplar-based generalization). This is of important practical consequence, as it informs whether to encode information in weights or in context, depending on how we want models to use that information. In transformers trained on controlled stimuli, we find that generalization from weights is more rule-based whereas generalization from context is largely exemplar-based. In contrast, we find that in transformers pre-trained on natural language, in-context learning is significantly rule-based, with larger models showing more rule-basedness. We hypothesise that rule-based generalization from in-context information might be an emergent consequence of large-scale training on language, which has sparse rule-like structure. Using controlled stimuli, we verify that transformers pretrained on data containing sparse rule-like structure exhibit more rule-based generalization.
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