Summer School: Even better than regular school! My experiences at ESSLLI 2016

Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to experience an event that inspires you in many ways at once, and that’s exactly what happened to me this summer. I have spent the past two weeks at a summer school in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy. Titled “European Summer School in Language, Logic and Computation”, it had always sounded like it was made for me and my interests — but only this year have I been close enough with a professor to be brave enough to ask for funding to go there.
I will spend a lot of time talking about how wonderful it was in the following sections. If you’re in a hurry, here’s a summary: It was wonderful and if you ever have the opportunity to attend a similar event, I highly recommend doing so.
Now here are some of the ways in which I had a great time at the summer school.

My experience at ESSLLI as a budding researcher

The summer school, and especially the workshops that took place in or around it, were an excellent opportunity for me to think about my possible future in academia. I had already heard a number of fascinating presentations by distributional semanticists before, in Düsseldorf or at other events, but the atmosphere of intellectual exchange, constructive discussion and collaborative spirit was so tangible here, it felt like a great place to end up in. One thing I liked a lot was that it didn’t feel at all like the speakers were trying to impress us with their results or sell some product — on the contrary, they took care to convey an understanding of the problems and difficulties they encountered in their projects, and together they puzzled over the trickily successful baseline and how to beat it.
Now, even with all that serious science going on, and me being one of the least seriously-scientific people in the room, I didn’t feel like an intruder or impostor at all. Sure, I was much less brave about asking questions than I usually try to be, but even without participating in the plenary discussions, I still felt welcomed and valued when I talked to my assorted role models in the coffee breaks or at dinner. Everyone was so competent and experienced that I could easily have descended into Impostor Syndrome madness, but instead I felt motivated and encouraged, it made me want to keep studying so I can at some point join this amazing club of researchers.
The classes and talks I attended ranged from “closely related to the thesis I’m trying to write right now” to “topics I would never think to learn more about by myself, but was extremely happy to have presented to me in easily digestible lessons”. I wouldn’t say that they provided me with any immediate help for my current work, but they were still useful for me, as they showed me other directions I could take if I want to switch gears at some point, and put me in a mindset of optimism about the tasks ahead of me. Last but not least, being able to talk to people who have been in the field for years or decades helped me figure out my priorities and resolve some of the qualms I had about staying in academia.

My experience at ESSLLI as a bot ally

I have an interest in bots and topics related to bots. Since this seems to be the year of bots, the topic was represented at ESSLLI in a variety of ways. Marco Baroni gave an evening lecture titled “Will computers ever be able to chat with us?”, and a number of classes dealt with modelling steps of human language processing in computational systems. For instance, I saw how a computer read a sentence from left to right and backtracked when it encountered syntactic difficulties; I learned about how dialogue systems can be designed to take the needs of their human conversational partners into account, and react to those needs in a highly responsive way; and I attended numerous talks about the nature of meaning and different approaches to the problem of accurately representing it (outside human brains), which might eventually help us build systems that “get” language.
My main takeaway from the input I received is a bag of questions I’m now asking myself about things that happen “under the hood” while we try to talk to a computer. Marco Baroni introduced me to the idea that conversational agents are “NLP-complete”, that is to say, they require us to solve all steps of Natural Language Processing first before we can talk to them… But the most fascinating thing to me was that “solving language” will not be enough to meaningfully interact with a system like that. We saw an example from a paper by Vinyals and Le (2015) that Marco Baroni commented with “If you are a corpus of several million words, you can very well be a lawyer and a doctor… To answer the question ‘what is your name’, you have to be a person.”

One of the many fascinating examples from the Vinyals and Le paper.

To me, that illustrated the point that language, as humans use it, is very closely tied to identity, and that chatting to a computer for fun on a level as meaningful as human discussions can be, we need to model an identity for the computer that resembles the sorts of identities we know from our human peers, at least to some degree. Before this is accomplished, we may be able to have a successful goal-oriented conversation with a pizza-ordering or flight-booking bot, but we will still be miles away from the sort of successful, satisfying communication that we can have among humans.
Those of my readers who know some of my twitterbots are probably aware that my projects don’t typically try to tackle the whole problem of “solving language”, but instead focus on showing how productive language can be, and how systematically many linguistic phenomena behave. Fortunately, ESSLLI also gave me an opportunity to pursue this (easier) interest, as one class included a twitterbot-building workshop that I attended. The bot I implemented was an idea I got from visiting a museum a week earlier, and it’s just a fun little thing that draws attention to a phenomenon I’ve noticed in both museums and restaurants (namely, that items often have long names that contain the same sort of function words glueing together noun phrases).

Yummy!

As always, it was inspiring to be in a room full of people working on bots, and intriguing to see at the end of the lesson what ideas everyone came up with.

My experience at ESSLLI as a productive member of a linguistic community

Having an international community of students at ESSLLI was wonderful, and it resulted in everyone speaking English all the time, even when two people who shared a first language discussed something among themselves. I’m especially happy that I was able to be productive in English, and that I even had some of my innovations catch on in my new circle of friends. First of all, I was able to turn one of my favourite classes, originally titled “The Role of Linguistic Interpretation in Human Failures of Reasoning”, into “Failure Class”. It was an important term for us, since we often needed to discuss who was going to attend Failure Class, and forgot the actual name of the class constantly. After that, there was an evening that we spent explaining our Summer School crushes to each other, and I successfully proposed we refer to the person who has a crush as the “crushant”, as in “I have never had a more polite crushant than you!” Lastly, there was a moment late at night in the park when I tried to hint that I needed to find a bathroom by suggesting we talk about the human condition for a minute, and elaborating in the vaguest terms possible. The result was that after this, everyone who excused themselves to go to the bathroom did so using the term “human condition”. (Please don’t bother explaining to me that the term is inaccurate and inappropriate in this context — that’s sort of the whole point.)
So far for the successes. At the same time, I was a bit self-conscious every now and then about not having made up my mind about rhoticity in English (I doubt I ever will), and it probably showed in my pronunciations, but since I had a near-constant feeling of successful communication, it can’t have been too bad.

My experience at ESSLLI as a living, breathing, emotional, individual entity

Before I arrived at the summer school, I wasn’t completely optimistic about being able to make new friends in those short two weeks, and indeed the first couple of days of socializing were exhausting for me with very little reward. However, after a few days, I did find a small group of like-minded students I was able to connect with on a personal level beyond the content of the classes — although the intellectual exchange was of course still a central aspect of our friendship. We had some immensely pleasant interactions and discussions about all sorts of topics surrounding language, cognition, academic life and its alternatives, artificial intelligence, identity, emotions, relationships, and who knows what else. Not only was it fun, relaxing and inspiring to spend time with this group in the breaks and the evenings, but I also had some especially meaningful intellectual connections with several individual members of the group.
In this way, my experience at ESSLLI is congruent with what I’ve heard about it from the staff at my university and the teachers at the summer school — many people had told me about collaborations and close friendships in their lives that began at ESSLLI, and I feel I can now relate to those stories.

My experience at ESSLLI as a tourist

The train ride to Bolzano was exciting for me, being a total noob when it comes to hilly landscapes.

Look, an alp!

During my stay there, I managed to do a surprising number of touristic activities: I saw the Archeological Museum about Ötzi, the iceman, the Natural History Museum, which I didn’t like at all, some frescoes at a medieval castle, and on the last day I enjoyed some confusion and puzzlement in the Museion, a contemporary art gallery. I also went on a day trip to Venice, where I was particularly happy about the view from the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, which helped me put what little I knew about the city in a bigger context. My main takeaway from the Venice trip is that even the most romantic city in the world feels unromantic when it’s full of tourists and over 30° C.

[map updated]

I would have liked to explore the mountains around Bolzano a bit more, but I didn’t feel comfortable hiking up there with the weather being as hot as it was. It’s something I’ll just keep in mind for the next time I’m in the region, hopefully not in August.
Bolzano is a bilingual region, with signs in Italian and German, and shopkeepers replying in German to German greetings and then stating the price for what you’re buying in Italian. As Marco Baroni explained, “Living in Bolzano is like living in a parallel corpus!” I’m always a fan of geographically-manifested parallel corpora (cf. Malta, Brussels), so I had a good time learning from everything I read in the streets.

If I had the choice, I’d definitely ESSLLI again!

I’m grateful to everyone who made my stay at the summer school such a worthwhile experience. First and foremost, my supervisor, who helped me fund the trip, and her team members who encouraged me to participate in the first place. Of course I’m also thankful to my new-found friends for making me feel at home in this environment so quickly. And lastly, I talked to some of the lecturers and found out that their main motivation for teaching at the summer school was wanting to create a dialogue with students, with very little or next to no financial incentive — knowing this makes me even more thankful for each and every one of them who decided to share their expertise and knowledge with us. Their passion about their subjects really showed in the classes and in direct conversations, and it went a long way towards getting me (even more) excited about academia and computational linguistics specifically.
If you’re reading this because you’ve also been to ESSLLI, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments!