Ecological Semantics: Programming Environments for Situated Language Understanding


Large-scale natural language understanding (NLU) systems have made impressive progress: they can be applied flexibly across a variety of tasks, and employ minimal structural assumptions. However, extensive empirical research has shown this to be a double-edged sword, coming at the cost of shallow understanding: inferior generalization, grounding and explainability. Grounded language learning approaches offer the promise of deeper understanding by situating learning in richer, more structured training environments, but are limited in scale to relatively narrow, predefined domains. How might we enjoy the best of both worlds: grounded, general NLU? Following extensive contemporary cognitive science, we propose treating environments as ``first-class citizens’’ in semantic representations, worthy of research and development in their own right. Importantly, models should also be partners in the creation and configuration of environments, rather than just actors within them, as in existing approaches. To do so, we argue that models must begin to understand and program in the language of affordances (which define possible actions in a given situation) both for online, situated discourse comprehension, as well as large-scale, offline common-sense knowledge mining. To this end we propose an environment-oriented ecological semantics, outlining theoretical and practical approaches towards implementation. We further provide actual demonstrations building upon interactive fiction programming languages.

Bridging AI and Cognitive Science (BAICS) workshop at ICLR2020