What Can Transformers Learn In-Context? A Case Study of Simple Function Classes

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 (NeurIPS 2022) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Shivam Garg, Dimitris Tsipras, Percy S. Liang, Gregory Valiant


In-context learning is the ability of a model to condition on a prompt sequence consisting of in-context examples (input-output pairs corresponding to some task) along with a new query input, and generate the corresponding output. Crucially, in-context learning happens only at inference time without any parameter updates to the model. While large language models such as GPT-3 exhibit some ability to perform in-context learning, it is unclear what the relationship is between tasks on which this succeeds and what is present in the training data. To investigate this, we consider the problem of training a model to in-context learn a function class (e.g., linear functions): given data derived from some functions in the class, can we train a model (e.g., a Transformer) to in-context learn most functions from that class? We show empirically that standard Transformers can be trained from scratch to perform in-context learning of linear functions---that is, the trained model is able to learn unseen linear functions from in-context examples with performance comparable to the optimal least squares estimator. In fact, in-context learning is possible even under two forms of distribution shift: (i) between the training data of the Transformer and inference-time prompts, and (ii) between the in-context examples and the query input during inference. We also show that we can train Transformers to in-context learn more complex function classes: sparse linear functions where the model outperforms least squares and nearly matches the performance of Lasso, and two-layer neural networks where the model performs comparably to neural networks trained on in-context examples using gradient descent.