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Still not systematic after all these years: On the compositional skills of sequence-to-sequence recurrent networks

Brenden M. Lake, Marco Baroni

Humans can understand and produce new utterances effortlessly, thanks to their systematic compositional skills. Once a person learns the meaning of a new verb "dax," he or she can immediately understand the meaning of "dax twice" or "sing and dax." In this paper, we introduce the SCAN domain, consisting of a set of simple compositional navigation commands paired with the corresponding action sequences. We then test the zero-shot generalization capabilities of a variety of recurrent neural networks (RNNs) trained on SCAN with sequence-to-sequence methods. We find that RNNs can generalize well when the differences between training and test commands are small, so that they can apply "mix-and-match" strategies to solve the task. However, when generalization requires systematic compositional skills (as in the "dax" example above), RNNs fail spectacularly. We conclude with a proof-of-concept experiment in neural machine translation, supporting the conjecture that lack of systematicity is an important factor explaining why neural networks need very large training sets.

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