Can intelligent agents invent their own language?

12Dec2017 17:00 - 18:00


Luc Steels, Institute for Advanced Studies (ICREA) Barcelona.


Two decades ago I embarked on a megalomaniac project: to investigate by what algorithms and representational structures a group of embodied autonomous agents might be able to develop their own communication systems with similar properties as human natural languages, that means: open-endedness both in terms of linguistic conventions and what could be expressed, muti-layered structure (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, grammar, semantics, pragmatics) and unbounded compositionality at each level. All this should be achieved without a central supervisor, without direct mind reading between the agents, and without human examples or intervention - even though if these agent populations interacted with humans they should adapt to our languages as well. Note that this challenge is fundamentally different from the typical machine learning challenge where a corpus of utterances is given and the objective is to categorise or complete utterances or acquire associations, for example between images and utterances. 

Key breakthrough

So where are we now after two decades of research? I believe that the central problem has been solved, in the sense that we now know how to build agents that can collectively invent their own language, although that is a different matter from actually building systems that do this in practice on a large scale. All the details have certainly not been worked out and we are dealing with many highly complex subcomponents, particularly if we do experiments with robotic agents. The key breakthrough has come from adopting fundamental ideas from evolutionary biology and complex systems science, namely self-organisation, level formation, and selection. This talk explains these fundamental ideas and then gives examples of experiments from different levels of linguistic structure. It also discusses technical ideas with general utility for AI that has come out of this research and open problems or possible experiments. 

The Talking Heads Experiment.

Steels, L. (2016) The Talking Heads Experiment. The origins of words and meanings. (re-edition from 1999) Language Science Press, Berlin. Free download.

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