The Learnability of In-Context Learning

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

Bibtex Paper


Noam Wies, Yoav Levine, Amnon Shashua


In-context learning is a surprising and important phenomenon that emerged when modern language models were scaled to billions of learned parameters. Without modifying a large language model's weights, it can be tuned to perform various downstream natural language tasks simply by including concatenated training examples of these tasks in its input. Though disruptive for many practical applications of large language models, this emergent learning paradigm is not well understood from a theoretical perspective. In this paper, we propose a first-of-its-kind PAC based framework for in-context learnability, and use it to provide the first finite sample complexity results for the in-context learning setup. Our framework includes an initial pretraining phase, which fits a function to the pretraining distribution, and then a second in-context learning phase, which keeps this function constant and concatenates training examples of the downstream task in its input. We use our framework in order to prove that, under mild assumptions, when the pretraining distribution is a mixture of latent tasks (a model often considered for natural language pretraining), these tasks can be efficiently learned via in-context learning, even though the model's weights are unchanged and the input significantly diverges from the pretraining distribution. Our theoretical analysis reveals that in this setting, in-context learning is more about identifying the task than about learning it, a result which is in line with a series of recent empirical findings. We hope that the in-context learnability framework presented in this paper will facilitate future progress towards a deeper understanding of this important new learning paradigm.