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Uncovering Intermediate Variables in Transformers using Circuit Probing

Michael A. LeporiThomas SerreEllie Pavlick
Nov 2023
Neural network models have achieved high performance on a wide variety of complex tasks, but the algorithms that they implement are notoriously difficult to interpret. In order to understand these algorithms, it is often necessary to hypothesize intermediate variables involved in the network's computation. For example, does a language model depend on particular syntactic properties when generating a sentence? However, existing analysis tools make it difficult to test hypotheses of this type. We propose a new analysis technique -- circuit probing -- that automatically uncovers low-level circuits that compute hypothesized intermediate variables. This enables causal analysis through targeted ablation at the level of model parameters. We apply this method to models trained on simple arithmetic tasks, demonstrating its effectiveness at (1) deciphering the algorithms that models have learned, (2) revealing modular structure within a model, and (3) tracking the development of circuits over training. We compare circuit probing to other methods across these three experiments, and find it on par or more effective than existing analysis methods. Finally, we demonstrate circuit probing on a real-world use case, uncovering circuits that are responsible for subject-verb agreement and reflexive anaphora in GPT2-Small and Medium.
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