Computer scientist Lise Getoor receives research funding from Google

A new project on recommender dialogue systems led by Getoor and her collaborators at UC Santa Barbara and USC will receive $1 million in funding over three years

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Lise Getoor

Lise Getoor, professor of computer science and engineering at UC Santa Cruz, and her collaborators at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Southern California will receive grants from Google totaling $1 million over three years to support their research on online recommender dialogue systems.

Recommender systems are among the most familiar practical applications of artificial intelligence (AI), suggesting music and movies people might like and products they might want to buy. Recommender dialogues, also known as conversational recommender systems, aim to go a step beyond and engage the user in an interactive dialogue to elicit more details about the user’s current interests and deliver more useful recommendations. But existing dialogue agents have limited capabilities.

Getoor and her collaborators bring a mix of backgrounds and expertise to the project. William Wang, director of UCSB's Natural Language Processing group and Center for Responsible Machine Learning, has broad interests in machine learning approaches to data science, including natural language processing and knowledge representation. Jay Pujara is a research assistant professor of computer science at USC whose research in artificial intelligence emphasizes user utility. He did postdoctoral research with Getoor at UC Santa Cruz.

“We form a strong tripod to support this project in terms of our backgrounds,” Getoor said. “We will also be working with leading experts at Google in machine learning, natural language processing, and knowledge-based reasoning.”

The team’s approach will be based on Probabilistic Soft Logic (PSL), an open-source toolkit developed by Getoor’s group at UC Santa Cruz that has been applied to a wide range of machine learning problems. PSL is a highly scalable probabilistic programming framework that is able to reason both statistically, using similarities, and logically, using soft rules.

“PSL is different from deep learning because of the way you can express soft tendencies, such as rules that apply most of the time but not all of the time, so it’s very intuitive and its results are easier to interpret,” Getoor said.

The researchers plan to extend PSL in key ways to integrate it with neural network-based deep learning approaches, which are highly popular but have some significant limitations. “The core of the project is figuring out how to integrate these approaches. What that will enable is a more informed dialogue that takes into account more of the user’s context,” Getoor said.

Wang added that the project aims to improve the reasoning capabilities of dialogue agents, so that the system can better understand a user’s request, using context and other information to generate a more appropriate response.

“For example, if I say I just had Italian for lunch, can you recommend a restaurant for dinner, a lot of dialogue systems don’t understand semantic constraints, so it might recommend a pizza place because of the implicit connection between pizza and Italian food,” Wang said. “That’s an issue that is often frustrating for users.”

The team will explore a unified reasoning and discovery framework to design better algorithms and models for understanding the roles of context, knowledge, and uncertainty in dialogues. In particular, the team will investigate natural language understanding, knowledge discovery and reasoning, and natural language generation in task-oriented dialogues and beyond.

Google supports innovative research projects in areas of study that are of key interest to Google as well as the research community. Getoor received a Google Faculty Research Award in 2019, and the new project builds on the work supported by that earlier grant.