Annie Louis (Google) “Understanding Indirect Answers to Polar Questions”

October 19, 2020 @ 12:00 pm – 1:15 pm
via Zoom


For the polar (yes/no) question “Want to get dinner?”, there are many perfectly natural responses in addition to ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Humans can spontaneously interpret responses such as “I’m starving.”, “You are up for Chinese?” or “Let’s do lunch tomorrow.”. Allowing such indirect yet natural responses in dialog systems can be hugely beneficial compared to closed vocabularies. However, today’s systems are only as sensitive to these pragmatic moves as their language model allows.

In this talk, I will present the first large-scale English language corpus with around 34,000 (yes/no question, indirect answer) pairs to enable progress on understanding indirect responses. The data was collected via elaborate crowd-sourcing, and contains utterances with yes/no meaning, as well as uncertain, middle-ground, and conditional responses. I will also present experiments with BERT-based neural models to predict such categories for a question-answer pair. We find that while our performance is reasonable, it is not yet sufficient for robust dialog.


Annie Louis is a Research Scientist at Google Research in London. Before that she worked as a postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, and as a Research Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute. Even previously, she completed her PhD with the NLP group at University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests are in NLP and machine learning, particularly on discourse and pragmatic phenomena, and applications such as summarisation, and conversation systems.


Center for Language and Speech Processing