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Studying Stand-Alone Self-Attention in Vision Models

Prajit Ramachandran
Niki Parmar
Ashish Vaswani
Irwan Bello
Jon Shlens
Neurips (2019) (to appear)
Google Scholar


Convolutions are a fundamental building block of modern computer vision systems. Recent approaches have argued for going beyond convolutions in order to capture long-range dependencies. These efforts focus on augmenting convolutional models with content-based interactions, such as self-attention and non-local means, to achieve gains on a number of vision tasks. The natural question that arises is whether attention can be a standalone primitive for vision models instead of serving as just an augmentation on top of convolutions. In developing and testing a pure self-attention vision model, we verify that self-attention can indeed be an effective standalone layer. A simple procedure of replacing all instances of spatial convolutions with a form of self-attention to ResNet-50 produces a fully self-attentional model that outperforms the baseline on ImageNet classification with 12% fewer FLOPS and 29% fewer parameters. On COCO object detection, a fully self-attention model matches the mAP of a baseline RetinaNet while having 39% fewer FLOPS and 34% fewer parameters. Detailed ablation studies demonstrate that self-attention is especially impactful when used in later layers. These results establish that standalone self-attention is an important addition to the vision practitioner’s toolbox.