Interpretability at Scale: Identifying Causal Mechanisms in Alpaca

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Zhengxuan Wu, Atticus Geiger, Thomas Icard, Christopher Potts, Noah Goodman


Obtaining human-interpretable explanations of large, general-purpose language models is an urgent goal for AI safety. However, it is just as important that our interpretability methods are faithful to the causal dynamics underlying model behavior and able to robustly generalize to unseen inputs. Distributed Alignment Search (DAS) is a powerful gradient descent method grounded in a theory of causal abstraction that uncovered perfect alignments between interpretable symbolic algorithms and small deep learning models fine-tuned for specific tasks. In the present paper, we scale DAS significantly by replacing the remaining brute-force search steps with learned parameters -- an approach we call Boundless DAS. This enables us to efficiently search for interpretable causal structure in large language models while they follow instructions. We apply Boundless DAS to the Alpaca model (7B parameters), which, off the shelf, solves a simple numerical reasoning problem. With Boundless DAS, we discover that Alpaca does this by implementing a causal model with two interpretable boolean variables. Furthermore, we find that the alignment of neural representations with these variables is robust to changes in inputs and instructions. These findings mark a first step toward deeply understanding the inner-workings of our largest and most widely deployed language models.