Large pretrained language models have shown surprising In-Context Learning (ICL) ability. With a few demonstration input-label pairs, they can predict the label for an unseen input without additional parameter updates. Despite the great success in performance, the working mechanism of ICL still remains an open problem. In order to better understand how ICL works, this paper explains language models as meta-optimizers and understands ICL as a kind of implicit finetuning. Theoretically, we figure out that the Transformer attention has a dual form of gradient descent based optimization. On top of it, we understand ICL as follows: GPT first produces meta-gradients according to the demonstration examples, and then these meta-gradients are applied to the original GPT to build an ICL model. Experimentally, we comprehensively compare the behavior of ICL and explicit finetuning based on real tasks to provide empirical evidence that supports our understanding. The results prove that ICL behaves similarly to explicit finetuning at the prediction level, the representation level, and the attention behavior level. Further, inspired by our understanding of meta-optimization, we design a momentum-based attention by analogy with the momentum-based gradient descent algorithm. Its consistently better performance over vanilla attention supports our understanding again from another aspect, and more importantly, it shows the potential to utilize our understanding for future model designing.

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