In-Context Learning Dynamics with Random Binary Sequences

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Eric J. Bigelow, Ekdeep Singh Lubana, Robert P. Dick, Hidenori Tanaka, Tomer D. Ullman


Large language models (LLMs) trained on huge corpora of text datasets demonstrate complex, emergent capabilities, achieving state-of-the-art performance on tasks they were not explicitly trained for. The precise nature of LLM capabilities is often mysterious, and different prompts can elicit different capabilities through in-context learning. We propose a Cognitive Interpretability framework that enables us to analyze in-context learning dynamics to understand latent concepts in LLMs underlying behavioral patterns. This provides a more nuanced understanding than success-or-failure evaluation benchmarks, but does not require observing internal activations as a mechanistic interpretation of circuits would. Inspired by the cognitive science of human randomness perception, we use random binary sequences as context and study dynamics of in-context learning by manipulating properties of context data, such as sequence length. In the latest GPT-3.5+ models, we find emergent abilities to generate pseudo-random numbers and learn basic formal languages, with striking in-context learning dynamics where model outputs transition sharply from pseudo-random behaviors to deterministic repetition.

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