On the Expressive Power of Self-Attention Matrices

Valerii Likhosherstov, Krzysztof Choromanski, Adrian Weller

Transformer networks are able to capture patterns in data coming from many domains (text, images, videos, proteins, etc.) with little or no change to architecture components. We perform a theoretical analysis of the core component responsible for signal propagation between elements, i.e. the self-attention matrix. In practice, this matrix typically exhibits two properties: (1) it is sparse, meaning that each token only attends to a small subset of other tokens; and (2) it changes dynamically depending on the input to the module. With these considerations in mind, we ask the following question: Can a fixed self-attention module approximate arbitrary sparse patterns depending on the input? How small is the hidden size $d$ required for such approximation? We make progress in answering this question and show that the self-attention matrix can provably approximate sparse matrices, where sparsity is in terms of a bounded number of nonzero elements in each row and column. While the parameters of self-attention are fixed, various sparse matrices can be approximated by only modifying the inputs. Our proof is based on the random projection technique and uses the seminal Johnson-Lindenstrauss lemma. Our proof is constructive, enabling us to propose an algorithm for finding adaptive inputs and fixed self-attention parameters in order to approximate a given matrix. In particular, we show that, in order to approximate any sparse matrix up to a given precision defined in terms of preserving matrix element ratios, $d$ grows only logarithmically with the sequence length $L$ (i.e. $d = O(\log L)$).

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