Searching for Efficient Transformers for Language Modeling

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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David So, Wojciech Mańke, Hanxiao Liu, Zihang Dai, Noam Shazeer, Quoc V Le


Large Transformer models have been central to recent advances in natural language processing. The training and inference costs of these models, however, have grown rapidly and become prohibitively expensive. Here we aim to reduce the costs of Transformers by searching for a more efficient variant. Compared to previous approaches, our search is performed at a lower level, over the primitives that define a Transformer TensorFlow program. We identify an architecture, named Primer, that has a smaller training cost than the original Transformer and other variants for auto-regressive language modeling. Primer’s improvements can be mostly attributed to two simple modifications: squaring ReLU activations and adding a depthwise convolution layer after each Q, K, and V projection in self-attention.Experiments show Primer’s gains over Transformer increase as compute scale grows and follow a power law with respect to quality at optimal model sizes. We also verify empirically that Primer can be dropped into different codebases to significantly speed up training without additional tuning. For example, at a 500M parameter size, Primer improves the original T5 architecture on C4 auto-regressive language modeling, reducing the training cost by 4X. Furthermore, the reduced training cost means Primer needs much less compute to reach a target one-shot performance. For instance, in a 1.9B parameter configuration similar to GPT-3 XL, Primer uses 1/3 of the training compute to achieve the same one-shot performance as Transformer. We open source our models and several comparisons in T5 to help with reproducibility.