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Affinity Workshop: Women in Machine Learning

Trading off Utility, Informativeness, and Complexity in Emergent Communication

Mycal Tucker · Julie A Shah · Roger Levy · Noga Zaslavsky


Emergent communication research often focuses on optimizing task-specific utility as a driver for communication. However, human languages appear to evolve under pressure to efficiently compress meanings into communication signals by optimizing the Information Bottleneck tradeoff between informativeness and complexity. In this work, we study how trading off these three factors — utility, informativeness, and complexity — shapes emergent communication, including compared to human communication. To this end, we propose Vector-Quantized Variational Information Bottleneck (VQ-VIB), a method for training neural agents to compress inputs into discrete signals embedded in a continuous space. We train agents via VQ-VIB and compare their performance to previously proposed neural architectures in grounded environments and in a Lewis reference game. Across all neural architectures and settings, taking into account communicative informativeness benefits communication convergence rates, and penalizing communicative complexity leads to human-like lexicon sizes while maintaining high utility. Additionally, we find that VQ-VIB outperforms other discrete communication methods. This work demonstrates how fundamental principles that are believed to characterize human language evolution may inform emergent communication in artificial agents.

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