Introducing Understanding Language by Machines

Spinoza Prize projects by Prof. dr. Piek Vossen

Spinoza Prize projects Understanding Language by Machines

The goal of Spinoza Prize projects “Understanding Language by Machines” is to develop computer models that can assign deeper meaning to language that approximates human understanding and to use these models to automatically read text and understand language in relation to the world. Current approaches to natural language understanding consider language as a closed-world of relations between words. Words and text are however highly ambiguous and vague while at the same time there is a large variation in the way we express similar things. People do not notice this ambiguity and variation when using language within their social communicative context. This project tries to get a better understanding of the scope and complexity of ambiguity and variation and to model the social communicative contexts to resolve it.

Abstract Framework

Abstract Framework Identity, Reference & Perspective
The Reference Machine is an abstract framework: a conceptual machine that can map natural language to the extra-linguistic world as we perceive it and represent it in our brain. The Reference Machine models different aspects of understanding through novel computer programs. It brings together three key concepts: identity, reference and perspective, and studies these three concepts in relation to each other. In total 6 PhDs and 3 PostDocs have researched various aspects of the above problems.

Physical Machine

Physical Machine Identity, Reference & PerspectiveThe Reference Machine is not only a conceptual model that illustrates the complexity of the relations between identity, reference and perspective, but is also a real machine in the physical world that reasons and communicates from its own perspective. This is embodied by our robot project. Pepper robot Leolani shares the world with us but perceives it differently. In order to communicate adequately about the world, a robot needs to relate its perception of the world to the way we perceive it.

Three fundamental concepts overarch the research:


If only all things in the world were given and identified by a number. However this is not how it works. There are infinite ways to define what is there, so how to identify them?


Reference is the relation between an expression and a thing in the world. There are infinite ways to refer to the infinite things in the world.


Perspective is the point of view from the source to the world. This can be spatial, temporal, emotional or motivational and determines how we make reference to things.

Five projects, each investigating a different aspect of assigning meaning:

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