Statistical Foundations of Prior-Data Fitted Networks
Proceedings of the 40th International Conference on Machine Learning, PMLR 202:25660-25676, 2023.
Prior-data fitted networks (PFNs) were recently proposed as a new paradigm for machine learning. Instead of training the network to an observed training set, a fixed model is pre-trained offline on small, simulated training sets from a variety of tasks. The pre-trained model is then used to infer class probabilities in-context on fresh training sets with arbitrary size and distribution. Empirically, PFNs achieve state-of-the-art performance on tasks with similar size to the ones used in pre-training. Surprisingly, their accuracy further improves when passed larger data sets during inference. This article establishes a theoretical foundation for PFNs and illuminates the statistical mechanisms governing their behavior. While PFNs are motivated by Bayesian ideas, a purely frequentistic interpretation of PFNs as pre-tuned, but untrained predictors explains their behavior. A predictor’s variance vanishes if its sensitivity to individual training samples does and the bias vanishes only if it is appropriately localized around the test feature. The transformer architecture used in current PFN implementations ensures only the former. These findings shall prove useful for designing architectures with favorable empirical behavior.