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Same Pre-training Loss, Better Downstream: Implicit Bias Matters for Language Models

Hong Liu · Sang Michael Xie · Zhiyuan Li · Tengyu Ma

Ballroom A


Language modeling on large-scale datasets improves performance of various downstream tasks. The validation pre-training loss is often used as the evaluation metric for language models since the pre-training loss tends to be well-correlated with downstream performance (which is itself hard to evaluate comprehensively). Contrary to the conventional wisdom, this paper shows that 1) pre-training loss cannot fully explain downstream performance and 2) flatness of the model is well-correlated with downstream performance where pre-training loss is not. We identify three ways to produce models with the same pre-training loss but different downstream performance: continue pre-training after convergence, increasing the model size, and changing the pre-training algorithms. These experiments demonstrate the existence of implicit bias of pre-training algorithms---among models with the same minimal pre-training loss, they implicitly prefer more transferable ones. Toward understanding this implicit bias, we prove that SGD with standard mini-batch noise implicitly prefers flatter minima of pre-training loss in language models, and empirically observe a strong correlation between flatness (measured by the trace of Hessian) and downstream performance among models with the same pre-training loss. We also prove in a synthetic language setting that among models with the minimal pre-training loss, the flattest model transfers to downstream tasks.

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