I am a research fellow at the Kempner Institute at Harvard University. I am interested in NLP training dynamics: how models learn to encode linguistic patterns or other structure and how we can encode useful inductive biases into the training process. Previously, I earned a PhD from the University of Edinburgh on Training Dynamics of Neural Language Models; worked at NYU, Google and Facebook; and attended Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon University. Outside of research, I play roller derby under the name Gaussian Retribution, perform standup comedy, and shepherd disabled programmers into the world of code dictation.
PhD in Informatics, 2021
University of Edinburgh
MEng in Computer Science, 2015
Johns Hopkins University
BSc in Computer Science, 2013
Carnegie Mellon University
Many NLP researchers are experiencing an existential crisis triggered by the astonishing success of ChatGPT and other systems based on large language models (LLMs). After such a disruptive change to our understanding of the field, what is left to do? Taking a historical lens, we look for guidance from the first era of LLMs, which began in 2005 with large n-gram models for machine translation. We identify durable lessons from the first era, and more importantly, we identify evergreen problems where NLP researchers can continue to make meaningful contributions in areas where LLMs are ascendant. Among these lessons, we discuss the primacy of hardware advancement in shaping the availability and importance of scale, as well as the urgent challenge of quality evaluation, both automated and human. We argue that disparities in scale are transient and that researchers can work to reduce them; that data, rather than hardware, is still a bottleneck for many meaningful applications; that meaningful evaluation informed by actual use is still an open problem; and that there is still room for speculative approaches.
Most interpretability research in NLP focuses on understanding the behavior and features of a fully trained model. However, certain insights into model behavior may only be accessible by observing the trajectory of the training process. We present a case study of syntax acquisition in masked language models (MLMs) that demonstrates how analyzing the evolution of interpretable artifacts throughout training deepens our understanding of emergent behavior. In particular, we study Syntactic Attention Structure (SAS), a naturally emerging property of MLMs wherein specific Transformer heads tend to focus on specific syntactic relations. We identify a brief window in pretraining when models abruptly acquire SAS, concurrent with a steep drop in loss. This breakthrough precipitates the subsequent acquisition of linguistic capabilities. We then examine the causal role of SAS by manipulating SAS during training, and demonstrate that SAS is necessary for the development of grammatical capabilities. We further find that SAS competes with other beneficial traits during training, and that briefly suppressing SAS improves model quality. These findings offer an interpretation of a real-world example of both simplicity bias and breakthrough training dynamics.
The impact of randomness on model training is poorly understood. How do differences in data order and initialization actually manifest in the model, such that some training runs outperform others or converge faster? Furthermore, how can we interpret the resulting training dynamics and the phase transitions that characterize different trajectories? To understand the effect of randomness on the dynamics and outcomes of neural network training, we train models multiple times with different random seeds and compute a variety of metrics throughout training, such as the L2 norm, mean, and variance of the neural network’s weights. We then fit a hidden Markov model (HMM) over the resulting sequences of metrics. The HMM represents training as a stochastic process of transitions between latent states, providing an intuitive overview of significant changes during training. Using our method, we produce a low-dimensional, discrete representation of training dynamics on grokking tasks, image classification, and masked language modeling. We use the HMM representation to study phase transitions and identify latent ‘detour’ states that slow down convergence.