Differentiable Subset Pruning of Transformer Heads

Jiaoda Li, Ryan Cotterell, Mrinmaya Sachan


Multi-head attention, a collection of several attention mechanisms that independently attend to different parts of the input, is the key ingredient in the Transformer. Recent work has shown, however, that a large proportion of the heads in a Transformer's multi-head attention mechanism can be safely pruned away without significantly harming the performance of the model; such pruning leads to models that are noticeably smaller and faster in practice. Our work introduces a new head pruning technique that we term differentiable subset pruning. Intuitively, our method learns per-head importance variables and then enforces a user-specified hard constraint on the number of unpruned heads. The importance variables are learned via stochastic gradient descent. We conduct experiments on natural language inference and machine translation; we show that differentiable subset pruning performs comparably or better than previous works while offering precise control of the sparsity level.


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