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Big Bird: Transformers for Longer Sequences

Guru Prashanth Guruganesh
Avinava Dubey
Joshua Ainslie
Anirudh Ravula
Qifan Wang
NeurIPS (2020)


Transformers-based models, such as BERT, have been one of the most successful deep learning models for NLP. Unfortunately, one of their core limitations is the quadratic dependency (in terms of memory mainly) on the sequence length due to their full attention mechanism. To remedy this, we propose, \emph{BigBird}, a sparse attention mechanism that reduces this quadratic dependency to linear. We show that \emph{BigBird} is a universal approximator of sequence functions and is Turing complete, thereby preserving these properties of the quadratic, full attention model. Along the way, our theoretical analysis demonstrates the need for having an O(1) global tokens, such as CLS, that attend to the entire sequence as part of the sparse attentions. We show that the proposed sparse attention can handle sequences of length up to 8x of what was previously possible using similar hardware. As a consequence of the capability to handle longer context, \emph{BigBird} drastically improves performance on various NLP tasks such as question answering.