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Luc Steels
Martin Loetzsch
Pieter Wellens
Flexible Word Meanings in Embodied Agents


Learning the meanings of words requires coping with referential uncertainty ? a learner hearing a novel word cannot be sure which aspects or properties of the referred object or event comprise the meaning of the word. Data from developmental psychology suggest that human learners grasp the important aspects of many novel words after just a few exposures, a phenomenon known as fast mapping. Traditionally, word learning is viewed as a mapping task, in which the learner has to map a set of forms onto a set of pre-existing concepts. We criticise this approach and argue instead for a flexible nature of the coupling between form and meanings as a solution to the problem of referential uncertainty. We implemented and tested the model in populations of humanoid robots that play situated language games about objects in their shared environment. Results show that the model can handle an exponential increase in uncertainty and allows scaling towards very large meaning spaces, while retaining the ability to grasp an operational meaning almost instantly for a great number of words. In addition, the model captures some aspects of the flexibility of form-meaning associations found in human languages. Meanings of words can shift between being very specific (names) and general (e.g. ?small?). We show that this specificity is biased not by the model itself but by the distribution of object properties in the world.

Journal: Connection Science
Page: 173–191
Volume: 20