Large Language Models Are Latent Variable Models: Explaining and Finding Good Demonstrations for In-Context Learning

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

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Xinyi Wang, Wanrong Zhu, Michael Saxon, Mark Steyvers, William Yang Wang


In recent years, pre-trained large language models (LLMs) have demonstrated remarkable efficiency in achieving an inference-time few-shot learning capability known as in-context learning. However, existing literature has highlighted the sensitivity of this capability to the selection of few-shot demonstrations. Current understandings of the underlying mechanisms by which this capability arises from regular language model pretraining objectives remain disconnected from the real-world LLMs. This study aims to examine the in-context learning phenomenon through a Bayesian lens, viewing real-world LLMs as latent variable models. On this premise, we propose an algorithm to select optimal demonstrations from a set of annotated data with a small LM, and then directly generalize the selected demonstrations to larger LMs. We demonstrate significant improvement over baselines, averaged over eight GPT models on eight real-world text classification datasets. We also demonstrate the real-world usefulness of our algorithm on GSM8K, a math word problem dataset. Our empirical findings support our hypothesis that LLMs implicitly infer a latent variable containing task information.