Softmax Output Approximation for Activation Memory-Efficient Training of Attention-based Networks

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper


Changhyeon Lee, Seulki Lee


In this paper, we propose to approximate the softmax output, which is the key product of the attention mechanism, to reduce its activation memory usage when training attention-based networks (aka Transformers). During the forward pass of the network, the proposed softmax output approximation method stores only a small fraction of the entire softmax output required for back-propagation and evicts the rest of the softmax output from memory. Then, during the backward pass, the evicted softmax activation output is approximated to compose the gradient to perform back-propagation for model training. Considering most attention-based models heavily rely on the softmax-based attention module that usually takes one of the biggest portions of the network, approximating the softmax activation output can be a simple yet effective way to decrease the training memory requirement of many attention-based networks. The experiment with various attention-based models and relevant tasks, i.e., machine translation, text classification, and sentiment analysis, shows that it curtails the activation memory usage of the softmax-based attention module by up to 84% (6.2× less memory) in model training while achieving comparable or better performance, e.g., up to 5.4% higher classification accuracy.