John Thickstun


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Backpack Language Models
John Hewitt | John Thickstun | Christopher Manning | Percy Liang
Proceedings of the 61st Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (Volume 1: Long Papers)

We present Backpacks: a new neural architecture that marries strong modeling performancewith an interface for interpretability and control. Backpacks learn multiple non-contextual sense vectors for each word in a vocabulary, and represent a word in a sequence as a context-dependent, non-negative linear combination ofsense vectors in this sequence. We find that, after training, sense vectors specialize, each encoding a different aspect of a word. We can interpret a sense vector by inspecting its (non-contextual, linear) projection onto the output space, and intervene on these interpretable hooks to change the model’s behavior in predictable ways. We train a 170M-parameter Backpack language model on OpenWebText, matching the loss of a GPT-2 small (124Mparameter) Transformer. On lexical similarity evaluations, we find that Backpack sense vectors outperform even a 6B-parameter Transformer LM’s word embeddings. Finally, we present simple algorithms that intervene on sense vectors to perform controllable text generation and debiasing. For example, we can edit the sense vocabulary to tend more towards a topic, or localize a source of gender bias to a sense vector and globally suppress that sense.


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An Information Bottleneck Approach for Controlling Conciseness in Rationale Extraction
Bhargavi Paranjape | Mandar Joshi | John Thickstun | Hannaneh Hajishirzi | Luke Zettlemoyer
Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP)

Decisions of complex models for language understanding can be explained by limiting the inputs they are provided to a relevant subsequence of the original text — a rationale. Models that condition predictions on a concise rationale, while being more interpretable, tend to be less accurate than models that are able to use the entire context. In this paper, we show that it is possible to better manage the trade-off between concise explanations and high task accuracy by optimizing a bound on the Information Bottleneck (IB) objective. Our approach jointly learns an explainer that predicts sparse binary masks over input sentences without explicit supervision, and an end-task predictor that considers only the residual sentences. Using IB, we derive a learning objective that allows direct control of mask sparsity levels through a tunable sparse prior. Experiments on the ERASER benchmark demonstrate significant gains over previous work for both task performance and agreement with human rationales. Furthermore, we find that in the semi-supervised setting, a modest amount of gold rationales (25% of training examples with gold masks) can close the performance gap with a model that uses the full input.