Google Research

$O(n)$ Connections are Expressive Enough: Universal Approximability of Sparse Transformers

Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (2020)


Transformer networks use pairwise attention to compute contextual embeddings of their inputs, and have achieved the state of the art performance in many NLP tasks. However, these models suffer from quadratic computational cost in the input sequence length $n$ to compute attention in each layer. This has prompted recent research into faster attention models, with a predominant approach involving sparsifying the connections in the attention layers. While empirically promising for long sequences, several fundamental questions remain unanswered: Can sparse transformers approximate any arbitrary sequence-to-sequence function, similar to their dense counterparts? How does the sparsity pattern and the sparsity level affect their performance? In this paper, we provide a \emph{unifying framework} that captures existing sparse attention models. Our analysis proposes sufficient conditions under which we show that a sparse attention model can provably \emph{universally approximate} any sequence-to-sequence functions. Surprisingly, our results show the existence of attention models with only $O(n)$ connections per attention layer that can approximate the same function class as the dense model with $n^2$ connections. Lastly, we present experiments comparing different patterns and levels of sparsity on standard NLP tasks.

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