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Abstract:Transformer architectures have been widely adopted in foundation models. Due to their high inference costs, there is renewed interest in exploring the potential of efficient recurrent architectures (RNNs). In this paper, we analyze the differences in the representational capabilities of Transformers and RNNs across several tasks of practical relevance, including index lookup, nearest neighbor, recognizing bounded Dyck languages, and string equality. For the tasks considered, our results show separations based on the size of the model required for different architectures. For example, we show that a one-layer Transformer of logarithmic width can perform index lookup, whereas an RNN requires a hidden state of linear size. Conversely, while constant-size RNNs can recognize bounded Dyck languages, we show that one-layer Transformers require a linear size for this task. Furthermore, we show that two-layer Transformers of logarithmic size can perform decision tasks such as string equality or disjointness, whereas both one-layer Transformers and recurrent models require linear size for these tasks. We also show that a log-size two-layer Transformer can implement the nearest neighbor algorithm in its forward pass; on the other hand recurrent models require linear size. Our constructions are based on the existence of $N$ nearly orthogonal vectors in $O(\log N)$ dimensional space and our lower bounds are based on reductions from communication complexity problems. We supplement our theoretical results with experiments that highlight the differences in the performance of these architectures on practical-size sequences.

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Abstract:In order to understand the in-context learning phenomenon, recent works have adopted a stylized experimental framework and demonstrated that Transformers can learn gradient-based learning algorithms for various classes of real-valued functions. However, the limitations of Transformers in implementing learning algorithms, and their ability to learn other forms of algorithms are not well understood. Additionally, the degree to which these capabilities are confined to attention-based models is unclear. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether the insights derived from these stylized settings can be extrapolated to pretrained Large Language Models (LLMs). In this work, we take a step towards answering these questions by demonstrating the following: (a) On a test-bed with a variety of Boolean function classes, we find that Transformers can nearly match the optimal learning algorithm for 'simpler' tasks, while their performance deteriorates on more 'complex' tasks. Additionally, we find that certain attention-free models perform (almost) identically to Transformers on a range of tasks. (b) When provided a teaching sequence, i.e. a set of examples that uniquely identifies a function in a class, we show that Transformers learn more sample-efficiently. Interestingly, our results show that Transformers can learn to implement two distinct algorithms to solve a single task, and can adaptively select the more sample-efficient algorithm depending on the sequence of in-context examples. (c) Lastly, we show that extant LLMs, e.g. LLaMA-2, GPT-4, can compete with nearest-neighbor baselines on prediction tasks that are guaranteed to not be in their training set.

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Abstract:Despite the widespread success of Transformers on NLP tasks, recent works have found that they struggle to model several formal languages when compared to recurrent models. This raises the question of why Transformers perform well in practice and whether they have any properties that enable them to generalize better than recurrent models. In this work, we conduct an extensive empirical study on Boolean functions to demonstrate the following: (i) Random Transformers are relatively more biased towards functions of low sensitivity. (ii) When trained on Boolean functions, both Transformers and LSTMs prioritize learning functions of low sensitivity, with Transformers ultimately converging to functions of lower sensitivity. (iii) On sparse Boolean functions which have low sensitivity, we find that Transformers generalize near perfectly even in the presence of noisy labels whereas LSTMs overfit and achieve poor generalization accuracy. Overall, our results provide strong quantifiable evidence that suggests differences in the inductive biases of Transformers and recurrent models which may help explain Transformer's effective generalization performance despite relatively limited expressiveness.

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Abstract:Distributional assumptions have been shown to be necessary for the robust learnability of concept classes when considering the exact-in-the-ball robust risk and access to random examples by Gourdeau et al. (2019). In this paper, we study learning models where the learner is given more power through the use of local queries, and give the first distribution-free algorithms that perform robust empirical risk minimization (ERM) for this notion of robustness. The first learning model we consider uses local membership queries (LMQ), where the learner can query the label of points near the training sample. We show that, under the uniform distribution, LMQs do not increase the robustness threshold of conjunctions and any superclass, e.g., decision lists and halfspaces. Faced with this negative result, we introduce the local equivalence query (LEQ) oracle, which returns whether the hypothesis and target concept agree in the perturbation region around a point in the training sample, as well as a counterexample if it exists. We show a separation result: on one hand, if the query radius $\lambda$ is strictly smaller than the adversary's perturbation budget $\rho$, then distribution-free robust learning is impossible for a wide variety of concept classes; on the other hand, the setting $\lambda=\rho$ allows us to develop robust ERM algorithms. We then bound the query complexity of these algorithms based on online learning guarantees and further improve these bounds for the special case of conjunctions. We finish by giving robust learning algorithms for halfspaces with margins on both $\{0,1\}^n$ and $\mathbb{R}^n$.

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Abstract:In the matrix completion problem, one wishes to reconstruct a low-rank matrix based on a revealed set of (possibly noisy) entries. Prior work considers completing the entire matrix, which may be highly inaccurate in the common case where the distribution over entries is non-uniform. We formalize the problem of Partial Matrix Completion where the goal is to complete a large subset of the entries, or equivalently to complete the entire matrix and specify an accurate subset of the entries. Interestingly, even though the distribution is unknown and arbitrarily complex, our efficient algorithm is able to guarantee: (a) high accuracy over all completed entries, and (b) high coverage, meaning that it covers at least as much of the matrix as the distribution of observations.

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Authors:Limor Gultchin, Vincent Cohen-Addad, Sophie Giffard-Roisin, Varun Kanade, Frederik Mallmann-Trenn

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Abstract:Among the various aspects of algorithmic fairness studied in recent years, the tension between satisfying both \textit{sufficiency} and \textit{separation} -- e.g. the ratios of positive or negative predictive values, and false positive or false negative rates across groups -- has received much attention. Following a debate sparked by COMPAS, a criminal justice predictive system, the academic community has responded by laying out important theoretical understanding, showing that one cannot achieve both with an imperfect predictor when there is no equal distribution of labels across the groups. In this paper, we shed more light on what might be still possible beyond the impossibility -- the existence of a trade-off means we should aim to find a good balance within it. After refining the existing theoretical result, we propose an objective that aims to balance \textit{sufficiency} and \textit{separation} measures, while maintaining similar accuracy levels. We show the use of such an objective in two empirical case studies, one involving a multi-objective framework, and the other fine-tuning of a model pre-trained for accuracy. We show promising results, where better trade-offs are achieved compared to existing alternatives.

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Abstract:A fundamental problem in adversarial machine learning is to quantify how much training data is needed in the presence of evasion attacks. In this paper we address this issue within the framework of PAC learning, focusing on the class of decision lists. Given that distributional assumptions are essential in the adversarial setting, we work with probability distributions on the input data that satisfy a Lipschitz condition: nearby points have similar probability. Our key results illustrate that the adversary's budget (that is, the number of bits it can perturb on each input) is a fundamental quantity in determining the sample complexity of robust learning. Our first main result is a sample-complexity lower bound: the class of monotone conjunctions (essentially the simplest non-trivial hypothesis class on the Boolean hypercube) and any superclass has sample complexity at least exponential in the adversary's budget. Our second main result is a corresponding upper bound: for every fixed $k$ the class of $k$-decision lists has polynomial sample complexity against a $\log(n)$-bounded adversary. This sheds further light on the question of whether an efficient PAC learning algorithm can always be used as an efficient $\log(n)$-robust learning algorithm under the uniform distribution.

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Abstract:The local Rademacher complexity framework is one of the most successful general-purpose toolboxes for establishing sharp excess risk bounds for statistical estimators based on the framework of empirical risk minimization. Applying this toolbox typically requires using the Bernstein condition, which often restricts applicability to convex and proper settings. Recent years have witnessed several examples of problems where optimal statistical performance is only achievable via non-convex and improper estimators originating from aggregation theory, including the fundamental problem of model selection. These examples are currently outside of the reach of the classical localization theory. In this work, we build upon the recent approach to localization via offset Rademacher complexities, for which a general high-probability theory has yet to be established. Our main result is an exponential-tail excess risk bound expressed in terms of the offset Rademacher complexity that yields results at least as sharp as those obtainable via the classical theory. However, our bound applies under an estimator-dependent geometric condition (the "offset condition") instead of the estimator-independent (but, in general, distribution-dependent) Bernstein condition on which the classical theory relies. Our results apply to improper prediction regimes not directly covered by the classical theory.

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Abstract:A common challenge across all areas of machine learning is that training data is not distributed like test data, due to natural shifts, "blind spots," or adversarial examples. We consider a model where one may abstain from predicting, at a fixed cost. In particular, our transductive abstention algorithm takes labeled training examples and unlabeled test examples as input, and provides predictions with optimal prediction loss guarantees. The loss bounds match standard generalization bounds when test examples are i.i.d. from the training distribution, but add an additional term that is the cost of abstaining times the statistical distance between the train and test distribution (or the fraction of adversarial examples). For linear regression, we give a polynomial-time algorithm based on Celis-Dennis-Tapia optimization algorithms. For binary classification, we show how to efficiently implement it using a proper agnostic learner (i.e., an Empirical Risk Minimizer) for the class of interest. Our work builds on a recent abstention algorithm of Goldwasser, Kalais, and Montasser (2020) for transductive binary classification.

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Abstract:We give an efficient algorithm for learning a binary function in a given class C of bounded VC dimension, with training data distributed according to P and test data according to Q, where P and Q may be arbitrary distributions over X. This is the generic form of what is called covariate shift, which is impossible in general as arbitrary P and Q may not even overlap. However, recently guarantees were given in a model called PQ-learning (Goldwasser et al., 2020) where the learner has: (a) access to unlabeled test examples from Q (in addition to labeled samples from P, i.e., semi-supervised learning); and (b) the option to reject any example and abstain from classifying it (i.e., selective classification). The algorithm of Goldwasser et al. (2020) requires an (agnostic) noise tolerant learner for C. The present work gives a polynomial-time PQ-learning algorithm that uses an oracle to a "reliable" learner for C, where reliable learning (Kalai et al., 2012) is a model of learning with one-sided noise. Furthermore, our reduction is optimal in the sense that we show the equivalence of reliable and PQ learning.

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