Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Some fodder for lunch conversation

The inimitable Bill Idsardi sent me two links to a recent paper on Foxp2 (here and here). The paper, a collaborative effort between Ann Graybiel's lab at MIT and researchers at the Max Planck in Leipzig studied how mice equipped with a "humanized" form of the Foxp2 gene learned to run mazes. It seems that it helps, well at least some times in some ways. The big advantage the humanized gene provides os to facilitate the transition between declarative (deliberative) and procedural (automatic) forms of storing new info. At any rate, the mice did better at some tasks than those without the humanized form of the gene. The reports go onto speculate (and I do mean speculate) about how all of this might have something to do with language. Here's the AAAS version for the non-expert: "The results suggest the human version of the FOXP2 gene may enable quick switch to repetitive learning- an ability that could have helped infants 200,000 years ago better communicate with their parents." The emphasis in the previous quote is mine. I don't know if it is possible to make a more hedged "suggestion" but I sincerely doubt it.  Even so, the report from Science does quote a skeptic who is "not sure how relevant the findings are to speech" given that the test relies on visual cues while speech relies on auditory ones.  I think that were they to ask me I would have been more skeptical still as I am not sure I see what the bridging assumptions are that take one from facilitated routinization of maze running to even word learning (the capacity that Grabile cites in the MIT piece as possibly enhanced by this version of FOXP2 (is there a difference between FOXP2 and foxp2?  I suspect that the former is the human one and the latter the non-human analogue. At any rate, …). Maybe, but it would have been nice to hear a little of how these two capacities might be related.

This might be interesting and important work. I am told that Graybiel is a big deal. Still, it is odd how little attempt there is to link this language gene to any language like effect.  I suspect that the reasons for this (aside form the fact that it's probably hard at MIT to find anyone (e.g. a linguist) who knows anything about language (and yes that was sarcastic)) is that biologists are really flummoxed by language. The Science article notes in passing as if it were obvious the following: "As a uniquely human trait, language has long baffled evolutionary biologists" (2)." Funny, when I say things like this (e.g. that language is a species specific special capacity and that evolution has little to say about it) furor immediately erupts. However, it seems to be conventional wisdom, at least for Science writers (and both they and I are right about this). At any rate, take a look. It won't take long.

Here's one more thing that you might find interesting. Aaron White sent me this link to Michael Jordan where he discusses deep learning. His discussion of supervised vs unsupervised learning is useful coming from him.  It's also short and he is also a big shot in this area so it's worth a quick look.

Thanks again to Bill and Aaron for this. Let me make it official: if you find something that you think would be of general interest, please send it along to me. One hope is that the blog can exploit the wisdom of crowds to make us all more aware with what is happening elsewhere that might be of general interest to us.


  1. Thanks for the links, Norbert.

    Re FOXP2. Doesn't the result show that it is EVEN LESS a/the language gene than what people thought/claimed?

    Re Jordan. Interesting quote "Having just written (see above) about the need for statistics/ML to ally itself more with CS systems and database researchers rather than focusing mostly on AI, let me take the opportunity of your question to exhibit my personal incoherence and give an answer that focuses on AI.
    I'd use the billion dollars to build a NASA-size program focusing on natural language processing (NLP), in all of its glory (semantics, pragmatics, etc).
    Intellectually I think that NLP is fascinating, allowing us to focus on highly-structured inference problems, on issues that go to the core of "what is thought" but remain eminently practical, and on a technology that surely would make the world a better place.
    Although current deep learning research tends to claim to encompass NLP, I'm (1) much less convinced about the strength of the results, compared to the results in, say, vision; (2) much less convinced in the case of NLP than, say, vision, the way to go is to couple huge amounts of data with black-box learning architectures.
    I'd invest in some of the human-intensive labeling processes that one sees in projects like FrameNet and (gasp) projects like Cyc. I'd do so in the context of a full merger of "data" and "knowledge", where the representations used by the humans can be connected to data and the representations used by the learning systems are directly tied to linguistic structure. I'd do so in the context of clear concern with the usage of language (e.g., causal reasoning). Very challenging problems, but a billion is a lot of money. (Isn't it?)."

    1. It is encouraging that the news that FOXP2 "is EVEN LESS a/the language gene than what people thought/claimed" finally made it to the biolinguistics community. Still Norbert thinks "it is odd how little attempt there is to link this language gene to any language like effect ... [and suspects] that biologists are really flummoxed by language". One has to wonder if it is pathological modesty that keeps Norbert from approaching those poor flummoxed biologists and educating them on the bio-linguistic structures that have been postulated based on intense nematode-studies and experiments in biological ladder construction [rumour has it no biolinguist reached Platonic heaven yet, but, please, keep climbing]. Instead of mocking the existing efforts Norbert could just TELL these researchers what genetically fixed bio-physiological constraints must be in place to account for island effects or ECP. Surely HIS decades of I-language research have given him a clear picture that he could pass on to the utterly flummoxed. Why has this not happened yet?