Shunyu Yao


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Personality Understanding of Fictional Characters during Book Reading
Mo Yu | Jiangnan Li | Shunyu Yao | Wenjie Pang | Xiaochen Zhou | Zhou Xiao | Fandong Meng | Jie Zhou
Proceedings of the 61st Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (Volume 1: Long Papers)

Comprehending characters’ personalities is a crucial aspect of story reading. As readers engage with a story, their understanding of a character evolves based on new events and information; and multiple fine-grained aspects of personalities can be perceived. This leads to a natural problem of situated and fine-grained personality understanding. The problem has not been studied in the NLP field, primarily due to the lack of appropriate datasets mimicking the process of book reading. We present the first labeled dataset PersoNet for this problem. Our novel annotation strategy involves annotating user notes from online reading apps as a proxy for the original books. Experiments and human studies indicate that our dataset construction is both efficient and accurate; and our task heavily relies on long-term context to achieve accurate predictions for both machines and humans.


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Revisiting the Roles of “Text” in Text Games
Yi Gu | Shunyu Yao | Chuang Gan | Josh Tenenbaum | Mo Yu
Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics: EMNLP 2022

Text games present opportunities for natural language understanding (NLU) methods to tackle reinforcement learning (RL) challenges. However, recent work has questioned the necessity of NLU by showing random text hashes could perform decently. In this paper, we pursue a fine-grained investigation into the roles of text in the face of different RL challenges, and reconcile that semantic and non-semantic language representations could be complementary rather than contrasting. Concretely, we propose a simple scheme to extract relevant contextual information into an approximate state hash as extra input for an RNN-based text agent. Such a lightweight plug-in achieves competitive performance with state-of-the-art text agents using advanced NLU techniques such as knowledge graph and passage retrieval, suggesting non-NLU methods might suffice to tackle the challenge of partial observability. However, if we remove RNN encoders and use approximate or even ground-truth state hash alone, the model performs miserably, which confirms the importance of semantic function approximation to tackle the challenge of combinatorially large observation and action spaces. Our findings and analysis provide new insights for designing better text game task setups and agents.

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TVShowGuess: Character Comprehension in Stories as Speaker Guessing
Yisi Sang | Xiangyang Mou | Mo Yu | Shunyu Yao | Jing Li | Jeffrey Stanton
Proceedings of the 2022 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies

We propose a new task for assessing machines’ skills of understanding fictional characters in narrative stories. The task, TVShowGuess, builds on the scripts of TV series and takes the form of guessing the anonymous main characters based on the backgrounds of the scenes and the dialogues. Our human study supports that this form of task covers comprehension of multiple types of character persona, including understanding characters’ personalities, facts and memories of personal experience, which are well aligned with the psychological and literary theories about the theory of mind (ToM) of human beings on understanding fictional characters during reading. We further propose new model architectures to support the contextualized encoding of long scene texts. Experiments show that our proposed approaches significantly outperform baselines, yet still largely lag behind the (nearly perfect) human performance. Our work serves as a first step toward the goal of narrative character comprehension.


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Reading and Acting while Blindfolded: The Need for Semantics in Text Game Agents
Shunyu Yao | Karthik Narasimhan | Matthew Hausknecht
Proceedings of the 2021 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies

Text-based games simulate worlds and interact with players using natural language. Recent work has used them as a testbed for autonomous language-understanding agents, with the motivation being that understanding the meanings of words or semantics is a key component of how humans understand, reason, and act in these worlds. However, it remains unclear to what extent artificial agents utilize semantic understanding of the text. To this end, we perform experiments to systematically reduce the amount of semantic information available to a learning agent. Surprisingly, we find that an agent is capable of achieving high scores even in the complete absence of language semantics, indicating that the currently popular experimental setup and models may be poorly designed to understand and leverage game texts. To remedy this deficiency, we propose an inverse dynamics decoder to regularize the representation space and encourage exploration, which shows improved performance on several games including Zork I. We discuss the implications of our findings for designing future agents with stronger semantic understanding.

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Self-Attention Networks Can Process Bounded Hierarchical Languages
Shunyu Yao | Binghui Peng | Christos Papadimitriou | Karthik Narasimhan
Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics and the 11th International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing (Volume 1: Long Papers)

Despite their impressive performance in NLP, self-attention networks were recently proved to be limited for processing formal languages with hierarchical structure, such as Dyck-k, the language consisting of well-nested parentheses of k types. This suggested that natural language can be approximated well with models that are too weak for formal languages, or that the role of hierarchy and recursion in natural language might be limited. We qualify this implication by proving that self-attention networks can process Dyck-(k, D), the subset of Dyck-k with depth bounded by D, which arguably better captures the bounded hierarchical structure of natural language. Specifically, we construct a hard-attention network with D+1 layers and O(log k) memory size (per token per layer) that recognizes Dyck-(k, D), and a soft-attention network with two layers and O(log k) memory size that generates Dyck-(k, D). Experiments show that self-attention networks trained on Dyck-(k, D) generalize to longer inputs with near-perfect accuracy, and also verify the theoretical memory advantage of self-attention networks over recurrent networks.


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Keep CALM and Explore: Language Models for Action Generation in Text-based Games
Shunyu Yao | Rohan Rao | Matthew Hausknecht | Karthik Narasimhan
Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP)

Text-based games present a unique challenge for autonomous agents to operate in natural language and handle enormous action spaces. In this paper, we propose the Contextual Action Language Model (CALM) to generate a compact set of action candidates at each game state. Our key insight is to train language models on human gameplay, where people demonstrate linguistic priors and a general game sense for promising actions conditioned on game history. We combine CALM with a reinforcement learning agent which re-ranks the generated action candidates to maximize in-game rewards. We evaluate our approach using the Jericho benchmark, on games unseen by CALM during training. Our method obtains a 69% relative improvement in average game score over the previous state-of-the-art model. Surprisingly, on half of these games, CALM is competitive with or better than other models that have access to ground truth admissible actions. Code and data are available at