Towards Understanding the Role of Attention in Prompt-tuning

Christos Thrampoulidis
Mahdi Soltanolkotabi
Samet Oymak
ICML 2023 (to appear)
Google Scholar


Prompt-tuning is an emerging strategy to adapt large language models (LLM) to downstream tasks by learning a (soft-)prompt parameter from data. Despite its success in LLMs, there is limited theoretical understanding of the power of prompt-tuning and the role of the attention mechanism in prompting. In this work, we explore prompt-tuning for one-layer attention architectures and study contextual mixture-models where each input token belongs to a context-relevant or -irrelevant set. We isolate the role of prompt-tuning through a self-contained prompt-attention model. Our contributions are as follows: (1) We show that softmax-prompt-attention is provably more expressive than softmax-self-attention and linear-prompt-attention under our contextual data model. (2) We analyze the initial trajectory of gradient descent and show that it learns the prompt and prediction head with near-optimal sample complexity and demonstrate how prompt can provably attend to sparse context-relevant tokens. (3) Assuming a known prompt but an unknown prediction head, we characterize the exact finite sample performance of prompt-attention which reveals the fundamental performance limits and the precise benefit of the context information. We also provide experiments that verify our theoretical insights on real datasets and demonstrate how prompt-tuning enables the model to attend to context-relevant information.