13 December 2005

Interesting topics in NLP

Papers for HLT/NAACL are due Friday, but since I'm probably not submitting anything, I'll take this opportunity to write down some thoughts about what NLP seems to care about and what I think it might care about more. Topic-wise, we have several big areas that typically overwhelm conference proceedings:

  • Machine Translation
  • Summarization
  • Language Modeling
  • Information Extraction
  • Parsing
There's obviously a lot more to NLP than these topics, but these by far recieve the highest publication rate at conferences like ACL, NAACL, HLT and COLING. I think it's fairly obvious why. Each has some strong combination of the "required" two aspects for publication at these conferences:
  • Importance (or strong community beliefs thereof)
  • Evaluatability (especially on common data sets with common metrics)
There is a third aspect under which contributions can be measured that doesn't seem to play a strong role in our field right now: Interestingness. The problem is that evaluating interestingness is difficult. As pointed out by Sam Roweis at a discussion at the BayesNLP workshop, this is something that SIGGRAPH is very successful at. Perhaps SIGGRAPH papers aren't on the most important or evaluatable topics, but they are certainly interesting. Putting too much weight on interestingness is probably a bad idea, especially if it completely forgoes the other two aspects. But maybe we'd be better off as a community if we had one or two tracks (or perhaps a workshop) that focused exclusively on interesting, new problems, even if they fumble a bit on evaluation and obvious short-term importance. Some topics I care about (i.e., think are interesting) that are not commonly seen at ACL-like conferences are:
  • User modeling or personalization in general
  • CogSci-oriented human-learning or -usage of language
  • Situated language experiments, in real or simulated worlds
  • Super-sentence models of coherence, cohesion, relation between documents
  • Tasks involving multiple media (text + {video, images, charts/tables, ...})
I don't expect these thing to actually start appearing soon, and I know there are conferences that focus more on each aspect individually, but I think it's time that our community as a whole starts paying more serious attention to what goes on in these areas.

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the NLP field is overrun by computer scientists who like to build text processing systems. To them, it is more compelling to build things that work than to search for cognitive models that explain natural phenomena. Not that there is anything wrong with it.

Kevin said...

I agree with the point about "interestingness." Unfortunately, there seems to be an inherent tradeoff between being interesting and having high scores in the evaluation. New, novel ideas often run the risk of underperforming existing systems, which may be highly-tuned. This is especially the case for large systems. For instance, in speech recognition, a researcher may develop a new language model with good perplexity, but after chaining it with the highly integrated acoustic and pronunciation model, give no WER improvements.

hal said...

I think as a community we're very disenchanted with cool stuff right now, and essentially use a research "search" technique with a constant zero heuristic function: we generally will only accept things that have been shown to work, not things with "promise." I think, and I believe many people agree, that this is leading us to a local maximum. The only way out is for some very strong willed people to forge ahead and ignore the community for a while, essentially applying their own, non-zero heuristic. This seems dumb: I'd like to be able to benefit from what they're doing.

OTOH, maybe we're not in a local max. Maybe we just haven't found the right local search operations to move higher (and toward more interesting things). Possible, but I tend to doubt it.

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I am more interested in Summarization and information extracting.

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