Self-Attention in Natural Language Processing: The Complete Guide

Self-attention helps Deep Learning models figure out what matters.
By Boris Delovski • Updated on Mar 28, 2023
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Many people have heard of ChatGPT, but almost no one apart from those working in the field knows that the GPT model is a variant of the Transformer model. This model came out in 2017 and took the world of Deep Learning by storm because it solved the main problem plaguing previous Natural Language Processing models. The Transformer model introduced many new mechanisms, most importantly the attention mechanism, which we will focus on in this article. First, I will give a high-level overview of attention, which should help people unfamiliar with Deep Learning understand why it helped change how we process text today. Then, we talk about some of the limitations of attention.



Why is Attention Important in Natural Language Processing?

One of the biggest challenges in Natural Language Processing is how we can make our Deep Learning model understand what's important. As humans, we use language as a tool to share ideas, either through speaking or writing. When we write, we often use rhetorical devices (like repetition, imagery, and metaphor) and structure our text creatively. On top of this, human language is constantly changing and evolving, which means there are infinite ways of conveying ideas. However, our computers can only follow a finite set of instructions.

When we create a computer program, we give it a set of instructions to follow. These instructions are also a form of language, and we need to make sure our computer can understand us. The problem is that it's impossible to create an infinite set of instructions to cover every possible way of expressing an idea in human language. So, while we may be able to teach our Deep Learning model to understand some language patterns, there will always be ways of expressing ideas that we haven't accounted for. 


Over the years, researchers have developed approaches to teaching computer models how to understand the main idea of a sentence. For example, Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) and Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) networks were once very popular because they treat a sentence as a sequence of words, where each word is influenced by the ones that came before it. In a way, these models mimic human memory: they analyze words in order, one at a time, and store information about each word in the form of data. This approach is an effective way to help a computer understand the main idea of a sentence, at least to some extent.

However, the biggest strength of these models also became their biggest weakness: at some point, the information from the previous words in a sequence dilutes to the point where it isn't helpful for understanding the idea of a sentence. For example, think about this article. Can you connect the first sentence to what you are reading right now? It is probably hard for you to remember the first sentence, let alone find a concrete connection. The longer a text becomes, the more difficult it is to establish connections between earlier and later parts of the text. So even though RNN and LSTM models performed very well with shorter texts, they struggled with longer ones. Of course, that was not the only limitation, but all of their issues stemmed from the fact that these models analyze sentences word by word.

Solving the problem I've just described seems straightforward: instead of analyzing text one word at a time, why not analyze the entire text at once? This would make the training process more efficient by allowing us to parallelize it. However, this approach is difficult to implement because if we abandon the concept of processing a sentence word by word, how can we establish connections between, say, the third and tenth word? Finding a way to explain these connections has been the biggest obstacle to implementing this theoretical solution. The self-attention mechanism may be the key to overcoming this obstacle. 


What is the Self-Attention Mechanism?

Although the self-attention mechanism used in the Transformer model was groundbreaking, it wasn't the first time attention had been used in Natural Language Processing models. Previous models had already incorporated attention in RNN-based models (for example, Bahdanau et al. (2014) and Luong et al. (2015)), but the Transformer model used the self-attention mechanism in an innovative way.

To illustrate self-attention at a high level, let's consider how a financial analyst analyzes a company's performance. The analyst has access to vast amounts of financial data and needs to selectively focus on the most important metrics and identify the relationships between them to understand the company's overall performance. 


Similarly, self-attention in Natural Language Processing enables us to focus on the most crucial parts of a sentence and establish connections between different components to understand the overall meaning of a text. The self-attention mechanism identifies the most important words of the sentence by analyzing which words are significant to most of the other words in the text. For instance, in the sentence "Stocks rallied despite trade tensions," the words "Stocks" and "rallied" are considered the most important words overall.


If we perform a task like sentiment classification to determine whether the sentence conveys something positive, neutral, or negative, and ask our model to consider all words equally important, then words such as "tensions" might complicate the task for our model to determine that the sentence is conveying something positive. However, if we tell our model the words "Stocks" and "rallied" are much more important, our model can quickly determine that the sentence conveys something positive.


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What is Multi-Head Attention?

Multi-head attention is a key component of the Transformer architecture, allowing it to achieve state-of-the-art performance. It is an extension of self-attention that enables the model to attend to different parts of the input sequence simultaneously, with each "head" performing a separate attention calculation. Each head of the multi-head attention mechanism is learned separately and attends to a different subset of the input sequence, so the model can capture multiple aspects of the input sequence at varying levels of granularity.


In the context of Natural Language Processing, we use multi-head attention to attend to different parts of the sentence with varying levels of detail. We can, for example, attend to individual words, phrases, or whole sentences. By attending to different parts of the sentence with varying levels of granularity, the model can capture more complex relationships between the input elements.


What are the Limitations of the Self-Attention Mechanism?

While the attention mechanism revolutionized how we deal with text data, it still comes with its own set of limitations, including:

  • computational complexity
  • input size limitations
  • vulnerability to noise
  • limited interpretability


Computational Complexity

The computation of attention scores has a quadratic complexity with respect to the length of the input sequence. In layman's terms, this means that the longer the text you input into a model that uses the self-attention mechanism, the longer it will take to process it. To be precise, if the length of the input sequence is doubled, the time or space required to process it will increase by a factor of four, so it grows quadratically.


Input Size Limitations

Although self-attention models can process longer input sequences than their LSTM counterparts, there is still an upper limit to the input length that can be processed efficiently. Researchers have tried to overcome this limitation by, for example, splitting long input sequences into smaller chunks and processing each chunk separately. While workarounds like this allow us to use self-attention models for tasks with longer inputs, they do not provide a definitive solution to the underlying problem.



Vulnerability to Noise

Training with high-quality data is essential for models that use self-attention because the mechanism is sensitive to noisy inputs. Noisy inputs containing errors or inconsistencies can negatively impact the model's robustness and accuracy. The self-attention mechanism may produce inaccurate attention scores when applied to noisy inputs, which results in incorrect representations and outputs. Although various techniques have been proposed to enhance the robustness of self-attention to noisy inputs, this remains a challenge.


Limited Interpretability

Interpretability is the capacity to understand how a model functions and arrives at its outputs or decisions. Although we can easily explain self-attention at a high level, understanding how it determines the precise contributions of each word for an outcome is challenging and requires several complex mathematical calculations. Various techniques, including visualization tools and attention attribution methods, have been proposed to improve the interpretability of self-attention. Still, none of these methods provide a complete understanding of the underlying processes.



In conclusion, self-attention is a powerful technique in deep learning for modeling sequential data, particularly in the context of Natural Language Processing tasks. It allows capturing the relationships between different parts of a sequence, and its success in Transformer models has demonstrated its efficacy. Self-attention has allowed researchers to achieve state-of-the-art results on various Natural Language Processing tasks, including language modeling, machine translation, and question-answering. However, self-attention also has limitations due to its computational complexity, vulnerability to noise, limited interpretability, and limited input length. We will probably solve some of these limitations in the future, or replace self-attention with a superior mechanism. But for now, self-attention is an instrumental part of all Transformer-based neural network architectures, ChatGPT included.


Boris Delovski

Data Science Trainer

Boris Delovski

Boris is a data science trainer and consultant who is passionate about sharing his knowledge with others.

Before Edlitera, Boris applied his skills in several industries, including neuroimaging and metallurgy, using data science and deep learning to analyze images.