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

*Josh Alman, Zhao Song*

In modern machine learning, inner product attention computation is a fundamental task for training large language models such as Transformer, GPT-1, BERT, GPT-2, GPT-3 and ChatGPT. Formally, in this problem, one is given as input three matrices $Q, K, V \in [-B,B]^{n \times d}$, and the goal is to construct the matrix $\mathrm{Att}(Q,K,V) := \mathrm{diag}(A {\bf 1}_n)^{-1} A V \in \mathbb{R}^{n \times d}$, where $A = \exp(QK^\top/d)$ is the `attention matrix', and $\exp$ is applied entry-wise. Straightforward methods for this problem explicitly compute the $n \times n$ attention matrix $A$, and hence require time $\Omega(n^2)$ even when $d = n^{o(1)}$ is small. In this paper, we investigate whether faster algorithms are possible by \emph{implicitly} making use of the matrix $A$. We present two results, showing that there is a sharp transition at $B = \Theta(\sqrt{\log n})$.$\bullet$ If $d = O(\log n)$ and $B = o(\sqrt{\log n})$, there is an $n^{1+o(1)}$ time algorithm to approximate $\mathrm{Att}(Q,K,V)$ up to $1/\mathrm{poly}(n)$ additive error.$\bullet$ If $d = O(\log n)$ and $B = \Theta (\sqrt{\log n})$, assuming the Strong Exponential Time Hypothesis from fine-grained complexity theory, it is impossible to approximate $\mathrm{Att}(Q,K,V)$ up to $1/\mathrm{poly}(n)$ additive error in truly subquadratic time $n^{2 - \Omega(1)}$.This gives a theoretical explanation for the phenomenon observed in practice that attention computation is much more efficient when the input matrices have smaller entries.

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