Task-Specific Skill Localization in Fine-tuned Language Models

Abhishek Panigrahi, Nikunj Saunshi, Haoyu Zhao, Sanjeev Arora

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Pre-trained language models can be fine-tuned to solve diverse NLP tasks, including in few-shot settings. Thus fine-tuning allows the model to quickly pick up task-specific “skills,” but there has been limited study of where these newlylearnt skills reside inside the massive model. This paper introduces the term skill localization for this problem and proposes a solution. Given the downstream task and a model fine-tuned on that task, a simple optimization is used to identify a very small subset of parameters (∼ 0.01% of model parameters) responsible for (> 95%) of the model's performance, in the sense that grafting the fine-tuned values for just this tiny subset onto the pre-trained model gives a performance almost as well as the fine-tuned model. While reminiscent of recent works on parameter-efficient fine-tuning, the novel aspects here are that: (i) No further re-training is needed on the subset (unlike, say, with lottery tickets). (ii) Notable improvements are seen over vanilla fine-tuning with respect to calibration of predictions in-distribution (40-90% error reduction) as well as the quality of predictions out-of-distribution (OOD). In models trained on multiple tasks, a stronger notion of skill localization is observed, where the sparse regions corresponding to different tasks are almost disjoint, and their overlap (when it happens) is a proxy for task similarity. Experiments suggest that localization via grafting can assist certain forms of continual learning. Our code is available at Skill-Localization-by-grafting.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27011-27033
Number of pages23
JournalProceedings of Machine Learning Research
StatePublished - 2023
Event40th International Conference on Machine Learning, ICML 2023 - Honolulu, United States
Duration: Jul 23 2023Jul 29 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Software
  • Control and Systems Engineering
  • Statistics and Probability


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