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Inverse scaling: Explore things that can go wrong when you increase the size of your language models

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Fiza Fatima

January 31

In today’s world of AI, we’re seeing a big push from both new and established tech companies to build the most powerful language models. Startups like OpenAI and big tech like Google are all part of this competition.

They are creating huge models, like OpenAI’s GPT-4, which has an impressive 1.76 trillion parameters, and Google’s Gemini, which also has a ton of parameters.

But the question arises, is it optimal to always increase the size of the model to make it function well? In other words, is scaling the model always the most helpful choice given how expensive it is to train the model on such huge amounts of data?

Well, this question isn’t as simple as it sounds because making a model better doesn’t just come down to adding more training data.

There have been different studies that show that increasing the size of the model leads to different challenges altogether. In this blog, we’ll be mainly focusing on the inverse scaling.

The Allure of Big Models

Perception of large models equating to better models

The general perception that larger models equate to better performance stems from observed trends in AI and machine learning. As language models increase in size – through more extensive training data, advanced algorithms, and greater computational power – they often demonstrate enhanced capabilities in understanding and generating human language.

This improvement is typically seen in their ability to grasp nuanced context, generate more coherent and contextually appropriate responses, and perform a wider array of complex language tasks.

Consequently, the AI field has often operated under the assumption that scaling up model size is a straightforward path to improved performance. This belief has driven much of the development and investment in ever-larger language models.

However, there are several theories that challenge this notion. Let us explore the concept of inverse scaling and different scenarios where inverse scaling is in action.

Inverse Scaling in Language Models

Inverse scaling is a phenomenon observed in language models. It is a situation where the performance of a model improves with the increase in the scale of data and model size, but beyond a certain point, further scaling leads to a decrease in performance.

Several reasons fuel the inverse scaling process including:

  1. Strong Prior

Strong Prior is a key reason for inverse scaling in larger language models. It refers to the tendency of these models to heavily rely on patterns and information they have learned during training.

This can lead to issues such as the Memo Trap, where the model prefers repeating memorized sequences rather than following new instructions.

A strong prior in large language models makes them more susceptible to being tricked due to their over-reliance on patterns learned during training. This reliance can lead to predictable responses, making it easier for users to manipulate the model to generate specific or even inappropriate outputs.

For instance, the model might be more prone to following familiar patterns or repeating memorized sequences, even when these responses are not relevant or appropriate to the given task or context. This can result in the model deviating from its intended function, demonstrating a vulnerability in its ability to adapt to new and varied inputs.

  1. Memo Trap

Inverse scaling: Explore things that can go wrong when you increase the size of your language models | Data Science Dojo
Source: Inverse Scaling: When Bigger Isn’t Better


Example of Memo Trap


Inverse Scaling: When Bigger Isn't Better
Source: Inverse Scaling: When Bigger Isn’t Better

This task examines if larger language models are more prone to “memorization traps,” where relying on memorized text hinders performance on specific tasks.

Larger models, being more proficient at modeling their training data, might default to producing familiar word sequences or revisiting common concepts, even when prompted otherwise.

This issue is significant as it highlights how strong memorization can lead to failures in basic reasoning and instruction-following. A notable example is when a model, despite being asked to generate positive content, ends up reproducing harmful or biased material due to its reliance on memorization. This demonstrates a practical downside where larger LMs might unintentionally perpetuate undesirable behavior.

  1. Unwanted Imitation

“Unwanted Imitation” in larger language models refers to the models’ tendency to replicate undesirable patterns or biases present in their training data.

As these models are trained on vast and diverse datasets, they often inadvertently learn and reproduce negative or inappropriate behaviors and biases found in the data.

This replication can manifest in various ways, such as perpetuating stereotypes, generating biased or insensitive responses, or reinforcing incorrect information.

The larger the model, the more data it has been exposed to, potentially amplifying this issue. This makes it increasingly challenging to ensure that the model’s outputs remain unbiased and appropriate, particularly in complex or sensitive contexts.

  1. Distractor Task

The concept of “Distractor Task” refers to a situation where the model opts for an easier subtask that appears related but does not directly address the main objective.

In such cases, the model might produce outputs that seem relevant but are actually off-topic or incorrect for the given task.

This tendency can be a significant issue in larger models, as their extensive training might make them more prone to finding and following these simpler paths or patterns, leading to outputs that are misaligned with the user’s actual request or intention. Here’s an example:

Inverse Scaling: When Bigger Isn't Better
Source: Inverse Scaling: When Bigger Isn’t Better

The correct answer should be ‘pigeon’ because a beagle is indeed a type of dog.

This mistake happens because, even though these larger programs can understand the question format, they fail to grasp the ‘not’ part of the question. So, they’re getting distracted by the easier task of associating ‘beagle’ with ‘dog’ and missing the actual point of the question, which is to identify what a beagle is not.

4. Spurious Few-Shot:

Inverse Scaling in language models
Source: Inverse Scaling: When Bigger Isn’t Better

In few-shot learning, a model is given a small number of examples (shots) to learn from and generalize its understanding to new, unseen data. The idea is to teach the model to perform a task with as little prior information as possible.

However, “Spurious Few-Shot” occurs when the few examples provided to the model are misleading in some way, leading the model to form incorrect generalizations or outputs. These examples might be atypical, biased, or just not representative enough of the broader task or dataset. As a result, the model learns the wrong patterns or rules from these examples, causing it to perform poorly or inaccurately when applied to other data.

In this task, the few-shot examples are designed with a correct answer but include a misleading pattern: the sign of the outcome of a bet always matches the sign of the expected value of the bet. This pattern, however, does not apply across all possible examples within the broader task set

Beyond size: future of intelligent learning models

Diving into machine learning, we’ve seen that bigger isn’t always better with something called inverse scaling. Think about it like this: even with super smart computer programs, doing tasks like spotting distractions, remembering quotes wrong on purpose, or copying bad habits can really trip them up. This shows us that even the fanciest programs have their limits and it’s not just about making them bigger. It’s about finding the right mix of size, smarts, and the ability to adapt.

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Written by Fiza Fatima

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