BlackboxNLP, with Tal Linzen and Afra Alishahi

Guests: Tal Linzen, Afra Alishahi
Hosts: Matt Gardner, Waleed Ammar

Neural models recently resulted in large performance improvements in various NLP problems, but our understanding of what and how the models learn remains fairly limited. In this episode, Tal Linzen and Afra Alishahi talk to us about BlackboxNLP, an EMNLP’18 workshop dedicated to the analysis and interpretation of neural networks for NLP. In the workshop, computer scientists and cognitive scientists joined forces to probe and analyze neural NLP models. BlackboxNLP 2018 website: https://blackboxnlp.github.io/2018/ BlackboxNLP 2018 proceedings: https://aclanthology.info/events/ws-2018#W18-54 BlackboxNLP 2019 website: https://blackboxnlp.github.io/

Matt Gardner
00:00

Hello and welcome to the NLP highlights podcast where we talk about interesting work in natural language processing.

Waleed Ammar
00:06

This is Matt Gardner and Waleed Ammar, we are research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Matt Gardner
00:12

All right. Today our guests are Tal Linzen and Afra Alishahi who are cognitive scientists joining us today talking about a workshop that they co-organized at EMNLP last year 2018 Tal is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and Afra is an associate professor at Tilburg University. Tal and Afra, welcome.

Afra Alishahi
00:32

Thank you for having us.

Tal Linzen
00:32

Thanks for having us Matt.

Matt Gardner
00:33

Today we wanted to talk about this workshop because from my perception it was one of the most well attended and most well liked workshops at ELMNP. I was at part of it and I liked it a lot. So we wanted to hear what you had to say about what you thought of it. So can you tell us at a high level like what was this workshop about?

Tal Linzen
00:49

The motivation for the workshop is that we have a new generation of models in NLP that are based on neural networks. And those models seem to work pretty well in general, but we don’t understand why they work so well, how they work and what their limitations are. And that’s a bit of a situation that’s new in comparison to previous generations of models where we understood a lot better how they worked internally. So the goal of this workshop was to bring together people who are trying to understand how these models work coming from different perspectives, including machine learning, and a linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience and so on.

Matt Gardner
01:33

So what do you think the cognitive side, as I said at the beginning, both of you are cognitive scientists. What’s the cognitive science angle here? How does this fit into understanding neural nets?

Afra Alishahi
01:45

Well, it seems that a lot of the current architectures are actually much more suitable for simulating tasks that humans do well. So it could be really interesting to see what kind of information or what kinds of linguistic knowledge are useful for these tasks. So what is it that these models actually learn in order to perform the kinds of tasks that humans perform well. So I think our personal interest in this topic are both on our side, me and Grzegorz Chrupała, and on Tal’s side was to understand whether the kinds of representations that these models form, which we don’t have direct access to. So it would be great if we can actually develop a set of techniques for making these kinds of representations more explicit in order to be able to get a better understanding of what kinds of representations are also more plausible for humans to rely on. We thought that the cognitive science motivation behind this approach was a bit more pressing than the practical motivation for opening the black box because as long as the model does what it’s supposed to do, many people are not necessarily concerned about how these models work, but actually the reaction, the response that we received to the workshop kind of proved us wrong because we got submissions and also attendance from a very wide range of audience.

Afra Alishahi
03:09

It seems that at least in theory, many, many people are interested in knowing how neural networks work and what the internal structure looks like and what kind of representations they use, even if they’re not necessarily interested in how the human brain works.

Tal Linzen
03:24

I would also add that there are maybe a couple of things that cognitive science can help with. So I think what Afra talked about was mostly why understanding how neural networks work is urgent for cognitive science, but, which I totally agree with. But in the other direction, I think that cognitive scientists, and if you think of linguistics as a part of cognitive science, which is a very challenging transition to think of linguistics as part of cognitive sciences that we are, have a lot of experience and care a lot about characterizing the task very well. So I think we have experimental, paradigms that tell us exactly what people are able to do and what they’re unable to do, what the, the, the very detailed breakdown of errors that people make. And I think that all of this deep understanding of the task, what it really means to understand the structure of a sentence or to interpret a sentence is something that is very developed in cognitive science and maybe a little bit less in NLP.

Tal Linzen
04:28

So that’s something that I, I felt in the workshop that, the workshop really benefited from cognitive scientists. And the, the other thing that’s not so much cognitive science traditionally construed but more cognitive neuroscience maybe is that the challenge of having a large number of real numbers represent whatever you’re trying to represent. Is the same challenge that cognitive neuroscientists are faced with when they try to analyze FMRI data. So FRI data is just a bunch of numbers and we need to make sense of them and connect them to what we think the representation in the brain might be. So again, I think that that tradition can be applied to analyzing artificial neural networks in the same way that we analyze neural networks in the brain.

Matt Gardner
05:16

Yeah. I guess to rephrase just a little bit using a phrase, I think I got from you Tal; cognitive scientists have a lot of experience trying to probe something that is a black box that has language capacity, which is a human, right? And so we can use those methods to try to also probe these other black boxes that have apparently or may have some kind of language capacity.

Tal Linzen
05:38

Yeah. So that’s a great way to put it.

Waleed Ammar
05:40

Sorry, I haven’t attended a workshop so I have a hard time like imagining what an example of of those methods, could you give an example?

Afra Alishahi
05:47

So there were actually a few families of techniques that repeated themselves in terms of things that we saw in the submissions and also in the “invited talks”.I think the invited talks actually great examples of different approaches to trying to tackle this problem. Don’t you agree, Tal. So we had formal methods for analyzing the internal representations of neural networks. We had the general approach that now people can’t really agree on how to call them. But there are various labels used for them like diagnostic classifiers of probing techniques or artillery tasks, which basically takes this internal representations and then feed some to some other downstream tasks. Many of them progressively motivated sports. We also had submissions which proposed techniques for trying to structure the mount of the internal dynamics of networks to what we know about human brain. For example, just taking the brain imaging data and taking the word embeddings or sentence embeddings extract from artificial neural networks and try to map these two structures that their representations are projected on and see whether there are structures similarities in this project. I think maybe Tal can talk a little bit more about that. All the formal linguistics and artificial languages.

Tal Linzen
07:04

Yeah. So I, I think that, there are experiments that people did with a synthetic data that were quite interesting in that that’s something that maybe you don’t see as much in a NLP but would be, would be nice to see more because you can really, design a simple and controlled language to test the hypothesis about the learning capabilities at a particular model. And we had a few, papers that analyzed how RNNs can learn context free languages for example. So we have this theoretical assumption, that language is fundamentally a context free language or some mild extension of that, a formalism. So in principle if we want to model language and the way that we think in linguistics, it’s a model we need to be able to model as many levels of embedding for example, as an infinite number of levels of embedding.

Tal Linzen
07:55

Right? So in natural language you don’t have a lot of cases of that. So we go to a synthetic language and see how well, you can learn in that case and I think you can derive theoretical results that are maybe not immediately applicable to NLP but it’s still quite interesting about the limitations of RNNs in generalizing to more deeply embedded structures for sample than they see in training. So that’s on the side of synthetic data. You can control the training data very well and see how the network generalizes outside of the training data. So to understand its inductive biases. But I think that there, there are also interesting, experiments with real languages that were also about, generalization. So you train, an RNN language model on English and English Corpus, and then you see how it generalizes to constructions that indicate how well it learned various syntactic rules.

Tal Linzen
08:51

So if it learned, filler gap dependency, we had the really talk about that or if it learns the agreement dependencies between different elements of the sentence.

Matt Gardner
09:02

Can you give us a little more detail on like filler gap and, and these other tests. I think a lot of our listeners probably don’t have a strong linguistics background and could benefit from understanding a bit more.

Tal Linzen
09:13

Yeah. So, when you ask a questions in English, there are certain things that you’re not grammatically allowed to ask questions about in a sentence. So let’s say the original sentences, “I ate pizza and cookies,” then you’re not allowed to by the rules of being in grammar and the English grammar police will arrest you if you ask the question, “What did you eat pizza and?” To mean, what is the thing that you ate in addition to pizza?

Tal Linzen
09:46

So that seems like a pretty arbitrary restriction. Why are not allowed to ask that question? “What did you eat pizza and?” Because you cannot ask questions like, “What did you eat your pizza with?” Very similar questions are fine, but that particular question isn’t fine. It’s a bit puzzling because we don’t have any explicit evidence that those questions are wrong like no one ever tells us that. And if you train a language model on the corpus, it’s not going to get explicit evidence that that’s an un- grammatical question. So it needs to infer the fact that it’s not grammatical from other aspects of the corpus and that which is what humans do as well. But that’s, that’s a generalization task. You ask the model whether it can detect that something is a grammatical or ungrammatical even though we didn’t see it at all in training and humans have very clear judgments about this kind of a sentence,

Matt Gardner
10:39

How do you actually ask the model that? Do you have like some training data to say grammatical or not or use some threshold? Like what do you do?

Tal Linzen
10:46

So there is the transfer approach, which you just mentioned where you have some, when you fine tune the model on some examples of grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. But I think that the more interesting cases when you manage to set the task up as comparison between the probability of two sentences and you show that the probability of the grammatical sentence is higher than the probability of the ungrammatical one. So for example, in the case of subject verb agreement, you can test whether after the words, the books on the table, the language model assigns a higher probability to “are” then to “is” because books are plural. So that’s, you don’t need to train the model to do any additional task. You just look at the probability distribution that it generates over the vocabulary.

Matt Gardner
11:36

That doesn’t really tell you anything about grammaticality. Right? Or does it, because you could imagine the systems still might have some sense of grammaticality like it might give a say these are probabilities, right? And it goes say 20% probability to “are” and 19% probability to “is” it still basically thinks both of them are equally grammatical even though it ranks one of them higher. So what do you, what do you make of that?

Tal Linzen
11:59

That is a very legitimate objection. I hope that the difference between these two verbs that are equally, semantically plausible into context, the, the only possible difference between them is in whether one is grammatical and the other one isn’t. So it’s possible that the network is not learning a categorical distinction between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. I would have to say that we don’t have very strong evidence that humans have a categorical distinction with ungrammatical and ungrammatical sentences. That’s a dirty secret in psycholinguistics. The fact that it shows the difference between these two words that are matched for all of their other properties indicates that it learned something about the grammar of English. It might not be a categorical distinction, but that gradient distinction is grammatical.

Matt Gardner
12:48

Okay. Yeah. There, there’ve been a lot of papers recently, some of them at Blackbox NLP, some of them at other places that look at these probing tasks to try to say like what kinds of phenomena do our pre-trained language models like Bert or Elmo or whatever Cove do they capture grammar. And that’s been a really big trend recently and we’ve learned some interesting things from it. Afra, were there any other high level trends that you saw at the workshop that you want to talk about?

Afra Alishahi
13:17

Yes, actually since you mentioned this does not fit classifiers. There were a bunch of papers that tried to argue against them, which started a very interesting conversation. I personally found this very helpful and very informative. So they were specifically, I can think of two papers, one by Zhang and Bowman and the other one by Naomi Saphra and Adam Lopez. So these were actually both extended abstracts as our workshop, but now the extended versions of those work are available on Archiv. Both of them tried to show that there are limitations to what these agnostic classifiers can show. And there was also some works before that. But because these two were presented at the workshop and they’re talking about this workshop, I’m mentioning them, the main idea is that so specifically the work of, John Bowman shows that even if you use a randomly initialized LSTM and then take their activations on the hidden layers and then try to train some classifier for example, for the part of speech tags, you will get an off chance accuracy.

Afra Alishahi
14:18

So that means that probably it’s just that this layer is, you know, hidden layers are still carrying some of the information which is already included in the word embeddings and therefore, you know, you don’t really, you can’t argue that the train, the models have to learn some particular type of information in this particular parts of speech tag, because it showed up in the performance of most classifiers. So you have to take these results with a grain of salt and it’s, you know, going to take work. In the work of, a Saphra and Lopez, they were suggesting some other techniques that look at the correlations between the kind of representation that you get in say a language model that’s trained specifically for predicting the next common word and similarly structured architecture model which learns to actually predict the next part of speech tags.

Afra Alishahi
15:11

And then if you project these, their internal representations of these two models and try to look at the correlations between the two, maybe that’s the more reliable key or signal than if you actually take the internal representations and feed them as an input to classifier and train that classifier for specifically probe a particular encoding of it, kind of linguistic information. So I think that’s a, I mean I think the jury’s still out. It’s not really clear formally what strengths and weaknesses of each of these two approaches are. But I think this is something that we should go take into account then because now using all sorts of diagnostic classifiers and not necessarily classifiers. Also some predictions that you make based on the activation layers of a particular model that’s trained on a certain task. We all use them very liberally and maybe we shouldn’t really be know jumping to conclusions if we get some off performers in this problem task.

Matt Gardner
16:10

Yeah, that’s really interesting. We had a project recently with a student who was trying to do some additional probing kinds of stuff and after seeing some of this work and talking to folks at ACL and EMNLP we decided we needed something better than just performance on the task because as you say, if you imagine you have a whole lot of training data in the probing task, then your classifier could just be learning something from random vectors from, from the training data itself. Right, and so the way we approached this was we said let’s look at random as a baseline and then like get some upper bound and then look at improvement over random as evidenced that it’s learning something.

Afra Alishahi
16:55

It is important to keep in mind that there is a lot already encoded in the word embeddings independent of the tasks that the model is actually optimized on and this really easily gets translated from one layer to another. So it’s hard to pull apart these two from each other. This also can cause problems in the other approach. So if you look at the correlations, it could be that the, you know, parts of speech, tie their service, keeping a lot of lexical information, which might not necessarily be relevant to the task that is optimized, but kind of lingering information causes the correlations to blow out of proportion. So it’s important to set up experiments properly and use really informed baselines, not just, you know, the maximum.

Matt Gardner
17:42

Yeah.

Tal Linzen
17:42

So I think in this context, a paper that got the best paper award at the workshop was very interesting. That’s by Mario Giulianelli and other people. The issue that I think that they started to address in that paper is when we, show that diagnostic classifier performs above chance. That means that the information exists in the internal representation of the model, but it doesn’t yet show that the model is using that information in the next layer. So traditionally the idea of an internal representation has to have two components. First you have to have the information and code it, but then you also have to have a downstream consumer of that information that is able to use it. And we don’t necessarily know that just from showing that the diagnostic classifier performs above chance. But what they did in their paper, which I thought was pretty interesting, was to try to back propagate, information through that diagnostic classifier back to the original layer that you’re trying to diagnose. And then see if changing the original layer according to what the diagnostic classifier tells you to do changes the behavior of the original model. Then you can be more confident that the model is in fact using the information that the agnostic classifier is picking up on. So I thought that that was a, a really nice approach.

Matt Gardner
19:09

Can you explain this a little more? So I have say a pre-trained language model and then I’m doing a diagnostic classifier on say filler gap dependencies and then I’m fine tuning or back propping through my language model itself. And then I’m saying if my model changes a lot that means there’s stuff there. Well, okay, I’m trying to understand the conclusion.

Tal Linzen
19:32

Yeah, so, so what the, the thing that you are doing is you’re telling your diagnostic classifier what the correct answer is and then you are trying to see how you would need to change the hidden layer of the language model such that diagnostic classifier gets the correct answer from the hidden state of the language model. Let’s say that diagnostic classifiers, predicting that the current part of speech is verb, but you know that it should be noun. So you’re trying to understand what do you need to change in the original state of the language model such that diagnostic classifier gets the correct part of speech and then you see if changing the original hidden layer accordingly improves the behavior of the language model.

Afra Alishahi
20:18

Basically proposing an intervention mechanism. So instead of trying to fiddle with your model, try to use an external tool to see where you can intervene halfway through the training in order to get the training back on track. Basically, this was one of the interesting answers to the question. So what? This was the current theme that a lot of people have experienced, if you work on these kinds analysis methods, you get usually good reviews of your paper. So what is it good for? I mean, okay, so now we know that these kinds of information is probably representative. How can we use this kind of information? And this particular paper was actually trying to suggest one way of using back this middle information or what kind of information is included in the network. Bring get back into the original task training and try to reset the activation layers on the right track and see what they’ve actually been. It improves the performance of the original task.

Matt Gardner
21:22

Okay. I’m still trying to understand how this is, is this the same as like standard fine tuning on some end tasks like what is different here?

Afra Alishahi
21:32

You have an original end task, right? You have the language modeling objective, right? But then you have this side-branch that you have a classifier that feeds off your original model and you’re basically trying to use the output of is classifier as the intervening in the, adjustment of the weights of your original language model in order to perform the better than the original.

Matt Gardner
21:54

To do better language modeling. So this is like multitask training.

Afra Alishahi
21:58

Yeah, it is. And idea this similar is just the setup is different, right? So you don’t have these two parallel tasks that you are actually optimizing at the same time you are focusing on one of them, but you’re using the second one as an occasional tuning techniques.

Matt Gardner
22:14

Okay.

Tal Linzen
22:14

For me the part that was exciting about the paper is not that it gives you a way to do multitask learning by direct supervision of the internal representations as opposed to the some like soft max layer say, but that it gives you evidence that the model is in fact using the information that the diagnostic classifier is picking up on. So for me, the exciting part was more that it supports the idea of diagnostic classifier as something that tells you something about how the model works rather than as a practical tool. Though it could also be as a practical tool. But I think in that case it is not so different from multitask learning.

Matt Gardner
22:51

And so you know that the model is using it because you get large gradients or what’s the exact mechanism here? How do you know that the model is using the information from the scaffolding task or whatever you want to call it?

Afra Alishahi
23:04

Because if you actually try to improve the performance of the diagnostic classifier, but addressing the internal wave of the language model, then the language model performance goes up too. So if you try to strengthen the representation of parts of speech facts, in this case, for example, your position of the next coming work becomes more accurate.

Matt Gardner
23:27

Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. So we’ve talked about a couple of interesting trends. Interestingly contradictory, we should use probing tasks and probing tasks, have problems,

Afra Alishahi
23:37

complimentary.

Matt Gardner
23:39

Yeah. any other, are there any other trends or anything you would highlight from like all of the papers in Blackbox, it’s kind of hard to summarize. I think he had 40 something papers in the workshop, but was there anything else that you would bring out as like an interesting trend from, from what you saw?

Afra Alishahi
23:56

Yeah, quite a large number of papers were submitted on the idea that maybe we should just work on the architectures themselves who make the dynamic of the model more interpretable. For example, if a particular modeling architecture, which uses latent variables or some explicit representation of structure or it is trained to, you know, learn some sorts of explainable outcome, some structured outcome or some rule-based represent representations, then the model itself helps planning what it’s learned. So that was a very dominant trends. I was actually surprised at how many papers or you know, abstracts off in that direction.

Matt Gardner
24:39

What are the mechanisms that people use to make these claims? Is it mostly attentions or is there something else?

Afra Alishahi
24:45

Quite a few papers use attention mechanisms and then analyze them, but that wasn’t very surprising or, you know, novel, although the way some people dealt with this was new. but as I said, the architectures have actually incorporated some latent variables. That’s best example of this line of work I would say. So papers are specifically try to learn, I don’t know, tree structures or parts of speech or some sort of latent variable of which you can later then analyze them, and try to make sense of not all of them work or as in, you know, not all of them actually improve the flat architectures, but they’re much easier to explain and some of them actually do improve their performance.

Matt Gardner
25:28

Interesting. Yeah. And I guess that makes learning a whole lot harder cause if you have a discreet latent variable, you have problems with backpropagation but you might gain something very useful by, by doing that.

Afra Alishahi
25:40

And also another line, that was relatively popular was to use some sort of, manipulation or preprocessing of the input as an analysis tool. So what happens if we pre-process our input data in a certain way and then feed it to the model and then see what happens, how it affects the performance of the model, which I guess formal linguistics section also falls under this category to some extent. But there are also, there were quite a few papers for which presented this customized data sets from annotated sentences for particular types of phenomenon, which you can then use for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of your model and what is sensitive to and what is not.

Matt Gardner
26:23

Yeah. Great. So you’re doing another iteration of Blackbox NLP this coming year. What conference is it going to be associated with or co-located with?

Tal Linzen
26:33

With the ACL in Florence? Yeah.

Matt Gardner
26:36

So what do you think are the interesting open questions that you hope people will address this year? Like we learned a bunch from last year. There’s still things we need to figure out. What are you hoping to see.

Tal Linzen
26:48

First I should say that me and Grzegorz are involved in organizing it. But most of the work, done by Yonatan Belinkov and Dieuwke Hupkes who joined us this year. I think one thing that Yonatan highlighted is we need to have better metrics and better tools to understand how successful we were in explaining or interpreting what goes on in the network. And we are mostly at a stage where we get interesting visualizations and, tantalizing, qualitative results. But we need, to have more of a science of interpretation than we do now. So I think that that would be an important next frontier in this, in this area.

Matt Gardner
27:32

And I guess, going back to what we said at the beginning, it’s one that cognitive science might have some interesting things to say about,

Tal Linzen
27:39

That is an interesting question. I, we’ll need to think about it. I don’t have a solution for this issue off the, off the top of my head. But I think that if we solve this issue in a artificial neural networks, it would be a very useful and, cognitive science as well. Especially given that artificial neural networks are just the best models we have right now for a lot of things in cognitive science, vision and to maybe a lesser extent in language as a percent in the beginning. It’s important for us to understand these models as much as it is for NLP folks. And maybe even more.

Afra Alishahi
28:14

So let me just say something in addition to what you just said. I’m not going to be part of their organization team for the next BlackboxNLP. But, it so happened that we had some sort of a local meeting here in the Netherlands with a bunch of groups who are working on similar topics. And one idea that came up that I thought was really interesting was to have some say in a venue like this and like BlackboxNLP, maybe not this one, but the one after that because it’s, you probably need some preparation for this, but to have some, something similar to the shared tasks that other workshops have, but in a kind of an opposite format. So let’s say that you have a model, a language model that has already been optimized and trained and then you release it and let people use their own analysis techniques to actually tell us what this model has learned. So what kinds of, you know, linguistic knowledge has been encoded in this model and then see to extent the image that different kinds of approaches can take is consistent with each other. That might be a very interesting, you know, discussion opening or you know, there’s this framework for comparing the viewpoints of different approaches and how reliable or how consistent they are to what extent these are, you know, complimentary or actually contradictory, but I guess it needs to be fleshed out more and thought about.

Matt Gardner
29:39

Yeah, that’s a great point. I guess we’re in a really interesting time in NLP these days where we have these crazy huge models that no one really understands, I don’t think has ever happened before. And so it’s, I guess, thank you for putting together this workshop. It’s a very needed direction right now. Are there any last thoughts or something you wanted to talk about that we missed before we conclude?

Afra Alishahi
30:03

I can’t think of anything actually.

Tal Linzen
30:05

Uh, no, I think that’s all that I wanted to say. I would also say that it was a really fun workshop to organize and, that I really enjoyed all of the 50 odd papers that were presented in the, in the workshop. And I think that, well I think one of the questions that people ask and you mentioned in your email is why I have the workshop as opposed to just submit all the papers to ACL. And I think that especially when, with at ACL becoming so large with, you know, thousands of entities and it just very difficult to have conversations about a shared topic. And I think that the workshop just enabled those kinds of conversations in the poster sessions and also at the talks. That was a huge advantage of having a smaller and more focused, venue.

Matt Gardner
30:56

Yeah. Great. Thanks. Thanks for coming on. This is a really interesting conversation.

Afra Alishahi
31:00

Thank you for having us.

Tal Linzen
31:00

Thanks.