Are Emergent Abilities of Large Language Models a Mirage?

April, 2023


Recent work claims that large language models display emergent abilities, abilities not present in smaller-scale models that are present in larger-scale models. What makes emergent abilities intriguing is two-fold: their sharpness, transitioning seemingly instantaneously from not present to present, and their unpredictability, appearing at seemingly unforeseeable model scales. Here, we present an alternative explanation for emergent abilities: that for a particular task and model family, when analyzing fixed model outputs, one can choose a metric which leads to the inference of an emergent ability or another metric which does not. Thus, our alternative suggests that existing claims of emergent abilities are creations of the researcher's analyses, not fundamental changes in model behavior on specific tasks with scale. We present our explanation in a simple mathematical model, then test it in three complementary ways: we (1) make, test and confirm three predictions on the effect of metric choice using the InstructGPT/GPT-3 family on tasks with claimed emergent abilities, (2) make, test and confirm two predictions about metric choices in a meta-analysis of emergent abilities on BIG-Bench; and (3) show how similar metric decisions suggest apparent emergent abilities on vision tasks in diverse deep network architectures (convolutional, autoencoder, transformers). In all three analyses, we find strong supporting evidence that emergent abilities may not be a fundamental property of scaling AI models.

Resource Type: