Pareto Probing: Trading Off Accuracy for Complexity

Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP)


The question of how to probe contextual word representations for linguistic structure in a way that is both principled and useful has seen significant attention recently in the NLP literature. In our contribution to this discussion, we argue for a probe metric that reflects the fundamental trade-off between probe complexity and performance: the Pareto hypervolume. To measure complexity, we present a number of parametric and non-parametric metrics. Our experiments using Pareto hypervolume as an evaluation metric show that probes often do not conform to our expectations—e.g., why should the non-contextual fastText representations encode more morpho-syntactic information than the contextual BERT representations? These results suggest that common, simplistic probing tasks, such as part-of-speech labeling and dependency arc labeling, are inadequate to evaluate the linguistic structure encoded in contextual word representations. This leads us to propose full dependency parsing as a probing task. In support of our suggestion that harder probing tasks are necessary, our experiments with dependency parsing reveal a wide gap in syntactic knowledge between contextual and non-contextual representations. Our code can be found at:

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