ALBERT: A Lite BERT for Self-supervised Learning of Language Representations

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Presented by

Maziar Dadbin


In this paper, the authors have made some changes to the BERT model and the result is ALBERT, a model that out-performs BERT on GLUE, SQuAD, and RACE benchmarks. The important point is that ALBERT has fewer number of parameters than BERT-large, but still it gets better results. The above mentioned changes are Factorized embedding parameterization and Cross-layer parameter sharing which are two methods of parameter reduction. They also introduced a new loss function and replaced it with one of the loss functions being used in BERT (i.e. NSP). The last change is removing dropout from the model.


In natural language representations, larger models often result in improved performance. However, at some point GPU/TPU memory and training time constraints limit our ability to increase the model size any further. There exist some attempts to reduce the memory consumption but at the cost of speed. For example, Chen et al. (2016)[1] uses an extra forward pass, but reduces the memory requirements in a technique called gradient checkpointing. Moreover, Gomez et al. (2017)[2] leverages a method to reconstruct a layer's activations from its next layer, in order to eliminate the need to store these activations, freeing up the memory. In addition, Raffel et al. (2019)[3], leverage model parallelization while training a massive model. The authors of this paper claim that there parameter reduction techniques reduce memory consumption and increase training speed.

Model details

The fundamental structure of ALBERT is the same as BERT i.e. it uses transformer encoder with GELU nonlinearities. The authors set the feed-forward/filter size to be 4*H and the number of attention heads to be H/64 where H is the size of the hidden layer. Next we explain the changes the have been applied to the BERT.

Factorized embedding parameterization

In BERT (as well as subsequent models like XLNet and RoBERTa) we have [math]\\E[/math]=[math]\\H[/math] i.e. the size of the vocabulary embedding ([math]\\E[/math]) and the size of the hidden layer ([math]\\H[/math]) are tied together. This is not an efficient choice because we may need to have a large hidden layer but not a large vocabulary embedding layer. This is actually the case in many applications because the vocabulary embedding ‘[math]\\E[/math]’ is meant to learn context-independent representations while the hidden-layer embedding ‘[math]\\H[/math]’ is meant to learn context-dependent representation which usually is harder. However if we increase [math]\\H[/math] and [math]\\E[/math] together, it will result in a huge increase in the number of parameters because the size of the vocabulary embedding matrix is [math]\\V \cdot E[/math] where [math]\\V[/math] is usually quite large, [math]\\V[/math] is the size of the vocabulary and equals 30000 in both BERT and ALBERT. The authors proposed the following solution to the problem: Do not project one-hot vectors directly into hidden space, instead first project one-hot vectors into a lower dimensional space of size [math]\\E[/math] and then project it to the hidden layer. This reduces embedding parameters from [math]\\O(V \cdot H)[/math] to [math] \\O(V \cdot E+E \cdot H) [/math] which is significant when [math]\\H[/math] is much larger than [math]\\E[/math].

Cross-layer parameter sharing

Another method the authors used for reducing the number of parameters is to share the parameters across layers. There are different strategies for parameter sharing for example one may only share feed-forward network parameters or only sharing attention parameters. However, the default choice for ALBERT is to simply share all parameters across layers. The following table shows the effect of different parameter sharing strategies in two setting for the vocabulary embedding size. As we can see in both cases, sharing all the parameters have a negative effect on the accuracy where most of this effect comes from sharing the FFN parameters not from sharing attention parameters. Given this, the authors have decided to share all the parameters across the layers which result in much smaller number of parameters which in turn enable them to have larger hidden layers and this is how they compensate what they have lost from parameter sharing.


Why does cross-layer parameter sharing work? From the experiment results, we can see that cross-layer parameter sharing dramatically reduces the model size without hurting the accuracy too much. While it is obvious that sharing parameters can reduce the model size, it might be worth thinking about why parameters can be shared across BERT layers. Two of the authors briefly explained the reason in a blog. They noticed that the network often learned to perform similar operations at various layers (Soricut, Lan, 2019). Previous research also showed that attention heads in BERT behave similarly (Clark et al, 2019). These observations made it possible to use the same weights at different layers.

Inter-sentence coherence loss

The BERT uses two loss functions namely Masked language modeling (MLM) loss and Next-sentence prediction (NSP) loss. The NSP is a binary classification loss were positive examples are two consecutive segments from the training corpus and negative examples are pairing segments from different documents. The negative and positive examples are sampled with equal probability. However experiments show that NSP is not effective. The authors explained the reason as follows: A negative example in NSP is misaligned from both topic and coherence perspective. However, topic prediction is easier to learn compared to coherence prediction. Hence, the model ends up learning just the easier topic-prediction signal. They tried to solve this problem by introducing a new loss namely sentence order prediction (SOP) which is again A binary classification loss. Positive examples are the same as in NSP (two consecutive segments). But the negative examples are the same two consecutive segments with their order swapped. The SOP forces the model to learn the harder coherence prediction task. The following table compare NSP with SOP. As we can see the NSP cannot solve the SOP task (it performs at random 52%) but the SOP can solve the NSP task to a acceptable degree (78.9%). We also see that on average the SOP improves results on downstream tasks by almost 1%. Therefore, they decided to use MLM and SOP as the loss functions.


Removing dropout

The last change the authors applied to the BERT is that they removed the dropout. This decision is supported by the following table. They also have an observation that even after 1M step of training the model is not overfitting to the data. dropout.png


By looking at the following table we can see that ALBERT-xxlarge outperforms the BERT-large on all of the downstream tasks. Note that the ALBERT-xxlarge uses a larger configuration (yet fewer number of parameters) than BERT-large and as a result it is about 3 times slower.



The authors mentioned that we usually get better results if we train our model for a longer time. Therefore, they present a comparison in which they trained both ALBERT-xxlarge and BERT-large for the same amount of time instead of same number of steps. Here is the results: sameTime.png However, in my opinion, this is not a fair comparison to let the ALBERT-xxlarge to train for 125K step and say that the BERT-large will be trained for 400K steps in the same amount of time because after some number of training steps, additional steps will not improve the result by that much. It would be better if we could also look at the results when they let the BERT-large to be trained for 125K step and the ALBERT-xxlarge to be trained the same amount of time. I guess in that case the result was in favor of the BERT-large. Actually it would be nice if we could have a plot with the time on the horizontal and the accuracy on the vertical axis. Then we would probably see that at first the BERT-large is better but at some time point afterwards the ALBERT-xxlarge starts to give the higher accuracy.


[1]: Tianqi Chen, Bing Xu, Chiyuan Zhang, and Carlos Guestrin. Training deep nets with sublinear memory cost. arXiv preprint arXiv:1604.06174, 2016.

[2]: Aidan N Gomez, Mengye Ren, Raquel Urtasun, and Roger B Grosse. The reversible residual network: Backpropagation without storing activations. In Advances in neural information processing systems, pp. 2214–2224, 2017.

[3]: Colin Raffel, Noam Shazeer, Adam Roberts, Katherine Lee, Sharan Narang, Michael Matena, Yanqi Zhou, Wei Li, and Peter J Liu. Exploring the limits of transfer learning with a unified text-to-text transformer. arXiv preprint arXiv:1910.10683, 2019.

[4]: Radu Soricut, Zhenzhong. ALBERT: A Lite BERT for Self-Supervised Learning of Language Representations. 2019. URL

[5]: Kevin Clark, Urvashi Khandelwal, Omer Levy, Christopher D. Manning. What Does BERT Look At? An Analysis of BERT's Attention. 2019. URL