ReLU Strikes Back: Exploiting Activation Sparsity in Large Language Models


Large Language Models (LLMs) with billions of parameters have drastically transformed AI applications. However, their demanding computation during inference has raised significant challenges for deployment on resource-constrained devices. Despite recent trends favoring alternative activation functions such as GELU or SiLU, known for increased computation, this study strongly advocates for reinstating ReLU activation in LLMs. We demonstrate that using the ReLU activation function has a negligible impact on convergence and performance while significantly reducing computation and weight transfer. This reduction is particularly valuable during the memory-bound inference step, where efficiency is paramount. Exploring sparsity patterns in ReLU-based LLMs, we unveil the reutilization of activated neurons for generating new tokens and leveraging these insights, we propose practical strategies to substantially reduce LLM inference computation up to three times, using ReLU activations with minimal performance trade-offs.

International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR), 2024 [Oral]
Iman Mirzadeh
Iman Mirzadeh
Machine Learning Research Engineer

PhD candidate & graduate research assistant.