Artificial intelligence systems that process language

Neural networks, which learn to perform computational tasks by analyzing huge sets of training data, have been responsible for the most impressive recent advances in artificial intelligence, including speech-recognition and automatic-translation systems.

During training, however, a neural net continually adjusts its internal settings in ways that even its creators can’t interpret. Much recent work in computer science has focused on clever techniques for determining just how neural nets do what they do.

In several recent papers, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Qatar Computing Research Institute have used a recently developed interpretive technique, which had been applied in other areas, to analyze neural networks trained to do machine translation and speech recognition.

They find empirical support for some common intuitions about how the networks probably work. For example, the systems seem to concentrate on lower-level tasks, such as sound recognition or part-of-speech recognition, before moving on to higher-level tasks, such as transcription or semantic interpretation.

But the researchers also find a surprising omission in the type of data the translation network considers, and they show that correcting that omission improves the network’s performance. The improvement is modest, but it points toward the possibility that analysis of neural networks could help improve the accuracy of artificial intelligence systems.

“In machine translation, historically, there was sort of a pyramid with different layers,” says Jim Glass, a CSAIL senior research scientist who worked on the project with Yonatan Belinkov, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science. “At the lowest level there was the word, the surface forms, and the top of the pyramid was some kind of interlingual representation, and you’d have different layers where you were doing syntax, semantics. This was a very abstract notion, but the idea was the higher up you went in the pyramid, the easier it would be to translate to a new language, and then you’d go down again. So part of what Yonatan is doing is trying to figure out what aspects of this notion are being encoded in the network.”