A computing scientist from the University of Aberdeen has released a book that uses computer algorithms to shed light on a fundamental aspect of human communication.
‘Computational Models of Referring: A Study in Cognitive Science’ has been written by Professor Kees van Deemter, a Chair in Computing Science.
The book aims to help further understanding of ‘referring’, the mechanism by which people anchor information to specific entities, by providing computational models of this process.
The book draws on perspectives from across the cognitive sciences, including experimental psychology, formal logic, computer science, and philosophy of language.
Professor Van Deemter will speak about the book at a workshop on natural language processing and generation taking place at the University’s Sir Duncan Rice Library on Monday.
He explained: “Referring is a fundamental part of human communication that we use all the time to make ourselves clear. For example, to explain which child in a crowd is your daughter you might refer to her as ‘the cute little girl over there’.
“However, referring expressions are prone to misunderstandings. For example, I may not be able to see your daughter from where I stand. Or, your daughter might not seem so cute to me. In situations where it’s important that we understand each other, it might be safer to use a clearer description, for example, ‘the girl in the yellow sweater, with the headphones on’.
“Finding the best way to refer can be challenging for people, and even more so for computers. For example, certain software programs that use voice recognition technology have a hard time understanding and producing expressions that refer to a document on your smartphone.
“My book goes beyond the basic idea of referring to include approximate descriptions (for example, ‘the mountains’) and descriptions produced under uncertainty concerning the hearer’s knowledge (‘this movie you may have seen’). It also includes descriptions that aim to influence the hearer, for example ‘this very well-researched book’.
“Going beyond the phenomenon of referring, the book calls for a combination of computational modelling and careful experimentation as the preferred method for expanding our insights in language and communication. It can be read as a representative case study in the interdisciplinary research area called cognitive science.”