What can a Single Attention Layer Learn? A Study Through the Random Features Lens

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Hengyu Fu, Tianyu Guo, Yu Bai, Song Mei


Attention layers---which map a sequence of inputs to a sequence of outputs---are core building blocks of the Transformer architecture which has achieved significant breakthroughs in modern artificial intelligence. This paper presents a rigorous theoretical study on the learning and generalization of a single multi-head attention layer, with a sequence of key vectors and a separate query vector as input. We consider the random feature setting where the attention layer has a large number of heads, with randomly sampled frozen query and key matrices, and trainable value matrices. We show that such a random-feature attention layer can express a broad class of target functions that are permutation invariant to the key vectors. We further provide quantitative excess risk bounds for learning these target functions from finite samples, using random feature attention with finitely many heads.Our results feature several implications unique to the attention structure compared with existing random features theory for neural networks, such as (1) Advantages in the sample complexity over standard two-layer random-feature networks; (2) Concrete and natural classes of functions that can be learned efficiently by a random-feature attention layer; and (3) The effect of the sampling distribution of the query-key weight matrix (the product of the query and key matrix), where Gaussian random weights with a non-zero mean result in better sample complexities over the zero-mean counterpart for learning certain natural target functions. Experiments on simulated data corroborate our theoretical findings and further illustrate the interplay between the sample size and the complexity of the target function.