Machine Reading, Fast and Slow: When Do Models 'Understand' Language?


Two of the most fundamental challenges in Natural Language Understanding (NLU) at present are: (a) how to establish whether deep learning-based models score highly on NLU benchmarks for the ‘right’ reasons; and (b) to understand what those reasons would even be. We investigate the behavior of reading comprehension models with respect to two linguistic ‘skills’: coreference resolution and comparison. We propose a definition for the reasoning steps expected from a system that would be ‘reading slowly’, and compare that with the behavior of five models of the BERT family of various sizes, observed through saliency scores and counterfactual explanations. We find that for comparison (but not coreference) the systems based on larger encoders are more likely to rely on the ‘right’ information, but even they struggle with generalization, suggesting that they still learn specific lexical patterns rather than the general principles of comparison.

In 29th International Conference on Computational Linguistics (COLING)