E X P E R T O P I N I O N
8 1541-1672/09/$25.00 © 2009 IEEE iEEE iNTElliGENT SYSTEMS
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
Contact Editor: Brian Brannon, email@example.com
such as f = ma or e = mc
. Meanwhile, sciences that
involve human beings rather than elementary particles have proven more resistant to elegant mathematics. Economists suffer from physics envy over
their inability to neatly model human behavior.
An informal, incomplete grammar of the English
language runs over 1,700 pages.
Perhaps when it
comes to natural language processing and related
fi elds, we’re doomed to complex theories that will
never have the elegance of physics equations. But
if that’s so, we should stop acting as if our goal is
to author extremely elegant theories, and instead
embrace complexity and make use of the best ally
we have: the unreasonable effectiveness of data.
One of us, as an undergraduate at Brown University, remembers the excitement of having access to
the Brown Corpus, containing one million English
Since then, our fi eld has seen several notable
corpora that are about 100 times larger, and in 2006,
Google released a trillion-word corpus with frequency
counts for all sequences up to fi ve words long.
some ways this corpus is a step backwards from the
Brown Corpus: it’s taken from unfi ltered Web pages
and thus contains incomplete sentences, spelling errors, grammatical errors, and all sorts of other errors. It’s not annotated with carefully hand-corrected
part-of-speech tags. But the fact that it’s a million
times larger than the Brown Corpus outweighs these
drawbacks. A trillion-word corpus—along with other
Web-derived corpora of millions, billions, or trillions of links, videos, images, tables, and user interactions—captures even very rare aspects of human
behavior. So, this corpus could serve as the basis of
a complete model for certain tasks—if only we knew
how to extract the model from the data.
Learning from Text at Web Scale
The biggest successes in natural-language-related
machine learning have been statistical speech recognition and statistical machine translation. The
reason for these successes is not that these tasks are
easier than other tasks; they are in fact much harder
than tasks such as document classifi cation that extract just a few bits of information from each document. The reason is that translation is a natural
task routinely done every day for a real human need
(think of the operations of the European Union or
of news agencies). The same is true of speech transcription (think of closed-caption broadcasts). In
other words, a large training set of the input-output
behavior that we seek to automate is available to us
in the wild. In contrast, traditional natural language
processing problems such as document classifi cation, part-of-speech tagging, named-entity recognition, or parsing are not routine tasks, so they have
no large corpus available in the wild. Instead, a corpus for these tasks requires skilled human annotation. Such annotation is not only slow and expensive to acquire but also diffi cult for experts to agree
on, being bedeviled by many of the diffi culties we
discuss later in relation to the Semantic Web. The
fi rst lesson of Web-scale learning is to use available
large-scale data rather than hoping for annotated
data that isn’t available. For instance, we fi nd that
useful semantic relationships can be automatically
learned from the statistics of search queries and the
or from the accumulated evidence of Web-based text patterns and formatted tables,
in both cases without needing any manually
ugene Wigner’s article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”
examines why so much of physics can be
neatly explained with simple mathematical formulas
Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig, and Fernando Pereira, Google
Effectiveness of Data
Authorized licensed use limited to: Univ of Calif Berkeley. Downloaded on February 5, 2010 at 22:51 from IEEE Xplore. Restrictions apply. March/april 2009 www.computer.org/intelligent 9
Another important lesson from statistical methods in speech recognition
and machine translation is that memorization is a good policy if you have
a lot of training data. The statistical
language models that are used in both
tasks consist primarily of a huge database of probabilities of short sequences
of consecutive words (n-grams). These
models are built by counting the number of occurrences of each n-gram sequence from a corpus of billions or trillions of words. Researchers have done
a lot of work in estimating the probabilities of new n-grams from the frequencies of observed n-grams (using,
for example, Good-Turing or KneserNey smoothing), leading to elaborate
probabilistic models. But invariably,
simple models and a lot of data trump
more elaborate models based on less
data. Similarly, early work on machine
translation relied on elaborate rules for
the relationships between syntactic and
semantic patterns in the source and
target languages. Currently, statistical
translation models consist mostly of
large memorized phrase tables that give
candidate mappings between specific
source- and target-language phrases.
Instead of assuming that general patterns are more effective than memorizing specific phrases, today’s translation
models introduce general rules only
when they improve translation over just
memorizing particular phrases (for instance, in rules for dates and numbers).
Similar observations have been made
in every other application of machine
learning to Web data: simple n-gram
models or linear classifiers based on
millions of specific features perform
better than elaborate models that try
to discover general rules. In many cases
there appears to be a threshold of sufficient data. For example, James Hays
and Alexei A. Efros addressed the task
of scene completion: removing an unwanted, unsightly automobile or exspouse from a photograph and filling
in the background with pixels taken
from a large corpus of other photos.
With a corpus of thousands of photos,
the results were poor. But once they
accumulated millions of photos, the
same algorithm performed quite well.
We know that the number of grammatical English sentences is theoretically infinite and the number of possible 2-Mbyte photos is 256
However, in practice we humans care
to make only a finite number of distinctions. For many tasks, once we
have a billion or so examples, we essentially have a closed set that represents (or at least approximates) what
we need, without generative rules.
For those who were hoping that a
small number of general rules could explain language, it is worth noting that
language is inherently complex, with
hundreds of thousands of vocabulary
words and a vast variety of grammatical constructions. Every day, new words
are coined and old usages are modified.
This suggests that we can’t reduce what
we want to say to the free combination
of a few abstract primitives.
For those with experience in smallscale machine learning who are worried about the curse of dimensionality
and overfitting of models to data, note
that all the experimental evidence
from the last decade suggests that
throwing away rare events is almost
always a bad idea, because much Web
data consists of individually rare but
collectively frequent events. For many
tasks, words and word combinations
provide all the representational machinery we need to learn from text.
Human language has evolved over
millennia to have words for the important concepts; let’s use them. Abstract representations (such as clusters
from latent analysis) that lack linguistic counterparts are hard to learn or
validate and tend to lose information.
Relying on overt statistics of words
and word co-occurrences has the further advantage that we can estimate
models in an amount of time proportional to available data and can often parallelize them easily. So, learning from the Web becomes naturally
The success of n-gram models has
unfortunately led to a false dichotomy.
Many people now believe there are
only two approaches to natural language processing:
• a deep approach that relies on handcoded grammars and ontologies,
represented as complex networks of
• a statistical approach that relies on
learning n-gram statistics from large
In reality, three orthogonal problems
• choosing a representation language,
• encoding a model in that language,
• performing inference on the model.
Each problem can be addressed in several ways, resulting in dozens of approaches. The deep approach that was
popular in the 1980s used first-order
logic (or something similar) as the representation language, encoded a model
with the labor of a team of graduate
students, and did inference with complex inference rules appropriate to the
representation language. In the 1980s
and 90s, it became fashionable to
For many tasks,
words and word
all the representational
machinery we need
to learn from text.
Authorized licensed use limited to: Univ of Calif Berkeley. Downloaded on February 5, 2010 at 22:51 from IEEE Xplore. Restrictions apply. 10 www.computer.org/intelligent iEEE iNTElliGENT SYSTEMS
use finite state machines as the representation language, use counting and
smoothing over a large corpus to encode a model, and use simple Bayesian
statistics as the inference method.
But many other combinations are
possible, and in the 2000s, many are
being tried. For example, Lise Getoor
and Ben Taskar collect work on statistical relational learning—that is, representation languages that are powerful enough to represent relations
between objects (such as first-order
logic) but that have a sound, probabilistic definition that allows models to
be built by statistical learning.
and his colleagues show how the same
kind of maximum-margin classifier
used in support vector machines can
improve traditional parsing.
Schoenmackers, Oren Etzioni, and
Daniel S. Weld show how a relational
logic and a 100-million-page corpus
can answer questions such as “what
vegetables help prevent osteoporosis?”
by isolating and combining the relational assertions that “kale is high in
calcium” and “calcium helps prevent
Semantic Web versus
The Semantic Web is a convention for
formal representation languages that
lets software services interact with
each other “without needing artificial
A software service that
enables us to make a hotel reservation
is transformed into a Semantic Web
service by agreeing to use one of several standards for representing dates,
prices, and locations. The service can
then interoperate with other services
that use either the same standard or
a different one with a known translation into the chosen standard. As Tim
Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora
Lassila write, “The Semantic Web will
enable machines to comprehend semantic documents and data, not human speech and writings.”
The problem of understanding human speech and writing—the semantic interpretation problem—is quite
different from the problem of software
service interoperability. Semantic interpretation deals with imprecise, ambiguous natural languages, whereas service interoperability deals with making
data precise enough that the programs
operating on the data will function effectively. Unfortunately, the fact that
the word “semantic” appears in both
“Semantic Web” and “semantic interpretation” means that the two problems have often been conflated, causing needless and endless consternation
and confusion. The “semantics” in Semantic Web services is embodied in the
code that implements those services in
accordance with the specifications expressed by the relevant ontologies and
attached informal documentation. The
“semantics” in semantic interpretation
of natural languages is instead embodied in human cognitive and cultural
processes whereby linguistic expression elicits expected responses and expected changes in cognitive state. Because of a huge shared cognitive and
cultural context, linguistic expression
can be highly ambiguous and still often be understood correctly.
Given these challenges, building Semantic Web services is an engineering
and sociological challenge. So, even
though we understand the required
technology, we must deal with significant hurdles:
• Ontology writing. The important
easy cases have been done. For example, the Dublin Core defines
dates, locations, publishers, and
other concepts that are sufficient for
card catalog entries. Bioformats.org
defines chromosomes, species, and
gene sequences. Other organizations
provide ontologies for their specific
fields. But there’s a long tail of rarely
used concepts that are too expensive
to formalize with current technology. Project Halo did an excellent
job of encoding and reasoning with
knowledge from a chemistry textbook, but the cost was US$10,000
Obviously we can’t afford that cost for a trillion Web
• Difficulty of implementation. Publishing a static Web page written
in natural language is easy; anyone
with a keyboard and Web connection can do it. Creating a databasebacked Web service is substantially
harder, requiring specialized skills.
Making that service compliant with
Semantic Web protocols is harder
still. Major sites with competent
technology experts will find the extra effort worthwhile, but the vast
majority of small sites and individuals will find it too difficult, at least
with current tools.
• Competition. In some domains,
competing factions each want to
promote their own ontology. In
other domains, the entrenched leaders of the field oppose any ontology
because it would level the playing
field for their competitors. This is
a problem in diplomacy, not technology. As Tom Gruber says, “Every ontology is a treaty—a social
agreement—among people with
some common motive in sharing.”
When a motive for sharing is lacking, so are common ontologies.
• Inaccuracy and deception. We
Because of a huge
shared cognitive and
cultural context, linguistic
expression can be highly
ambiguous and still often
be understood correctly.
Authorized licensed use limited to: Univ of Calif Berkeley. Downloaded on February 5, 2010 at 22:51 from IEEE Xplore. Restrictions apply. March/april 2009 www.computer.org/intelligent 11
know how to build sound inference
mechanisms that take true premises
and infer true conclusions. But we
don’t have an established methodology to deal with mistaken premises
or with actors who lie, cheat, or otherwise deceive. Some work in reputation management and trust exists,
but for the time being we can expect
Semantic Web technology to work
best where an honest, self-correcting
group of cooperative users exists
and not as well where competition
and deception exist.
The challenges for achieving accurate semantic interpretation are different. We’ve already solved the sociological problem of building a network
infrastructure that has encouraged
hundreds of millions of authors to
share a trillion pages of content. We’ve
solved the technological problem of aggregating and indexing all this content.
But we’re left with a scientific problem
of interpreting the content, which is
mainly that of learning as much as possible about the context of the content to
correctly disambiguate it. The semantic interpretation problem remains regardless of whether or not we’re using
a Semantic Web framework. The same
meaning can be expressed in many different ways, and the same expression
can express many different meanings.
For example, a table of company information might be expressed in ad hoc
HTML with column headers called
“Company,” “Location,” and so on.
Or it could be expressed in a Semantic
Web format, with standard identifiers
for “Company Name” and “Location,”
using the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative point-encoding scheme. But even if
we have a formal Semantic Web “Company Name” attribute, we can’t expect
to have an ontology for every possible
value of this attribute. For example, we
can’t know for sure what company the
string “Joe’s Pizza” refers to because
hundreds of businesses have that name
and new ones are being added all the
time. We also can’t always tell which
business is meant by the string “HP.”
It could refer to Helmerich & Payne
Corp. when the column is populated
by stock ticker symbols but probably
refers to Hewlett-Packard when the
column is populated by names of large
technology companies. The problem of
semantic interpretation remains; using
a Semantic Web formalism just means
that semantic interpretation must be
done on shorter strings that fall between angle brackets.
What we need are methods to infer
relationships between column headers
or mentions of entities in the world.
These inferences may be incorrect at
times, but if they’re done well enough
we can connect disparate data collections and thereby substantially enhance our interaction with Web data.
Interestingly, here too Web-scale data
might be an important part of the solution. The Web contains hundreds of
millions of independently created tables and possibly a similar number of
lists that can be transformed into tables.14
These tables represent structured data in myriad domains. They
also represent how different people
organize data—the choices they make
for which columns to include and the
names given to the columns. The tables
also provide a rich collection of column
values, and values that they decided
belong in the same column of a table.
We’ve never before had such a vast collection of tables (and their schemata) at
our disposal to help us resolve semantic heterogeneity. Using such a corpus,
we hope to be able to accomplish tasks
such as deciding when “Company”
and “Company Name” are synonyms,
deciding when “HP” means Helmerich
& Payne or Hewlett-Packard, and determining that an object with attributes “passengers” and “cruising altitude” is probably an aircraft.
How can we use such a corpus of tables? Suppose we want to find synonyms for attribute names—for example, when “Company Name” could be
equivalent to “Company” and “price”
could be equivalent to “discount”).
Such synonyms differ from those in a
thesaurus because here, they are highly
context dependent (both in tables and
in natural language). Given the corpus, we can extract a set of schemata
from the tables’ column labels; for example, researchers reliably extracted
2.5 million distinct schemata from a
collection of 150 million tables, not all
of which had schema.
We can now
examine the co-occurrences of attribute names in these schemata. If we
see a pair of attributes A and B that
rarely occur together but always occur
with the same other attribute names,
this might mean that A and B are synonyms. We can further justify this hypothesis if we see that data elements
have a significant overlap or are of the
same data type. Similarly, we can also
offer a schema autocomplete feature
for database designers. For example,
by analyzing such a large corpus of
schemata, we can discover that schemata that have the attributes Make
and Model also tend to have the attributes Year, Color, and Mileage. Providing such feedback to schemata creators can save them time but can also
help them use more common attribute
names, thereby decreasing a possible
The same meaning
can be expressed
in many different ways,
and the same expression
can express many
Authorized licensed use limited to: Univ of Calif Berkeley. Downloaded on February 5, 2010 at 22:51 from IEEE Xplore. Restrictions apply. 12 www.computer.org/intelligent iEEE iNTElliGENT SYSTEMS
source of heterogeneity in Web-based
data. Of course, we’ll find immense
opportunities to create interesting data
sets if we can automatically combine
data from multiple tables in this collection. This is an area of active research.
Another opportunity is to combine
data from multiple tables with data
from other sources, such as unstructured Web pages or Web search queries. For example, Marius Paşca also
considered the task of identifying attributes of classes.
That is, his system first identifies classes such as
“Company,” then finds examples such
as “Adobe Systems,” “Macromedia,”
“Apple Computer,” “Target,” and
so on, and finally identifies class attributes such as “location,” “CEO,”
“headquarters,” “stock price,” and
“company profile.” Michael Cafarella
and his colleagues showed this can be
gleaned from tables, but Paşca showed
it can also be extracted from plain
text on Web pages and from user queries in search logs. That is, from the
user query “Apple Computer stock
price” and from the other information
we know about existing classes and
attributes, we can confirm that “stock
price” is an attribute of the “Company” class. Moreover, the technique
works not just for a few dozen of the
most popular classes but for thousands of classes and tens of thousands
of attributes, including classes like
“Aircraft Model,” which has attributes “weight,” “length,” “fuel consumption,” “interior photos,” “specifications,” and “seating arrangement.”
Paşca shows that including query logs
can lead to excellent performance,
with 90 percent precision over the top
10 attributes per class.
So, follow the data. Choose a representation that can use unsupervised
learning on unlabeled data, which is
so much more plentiful than labeled
data. Represent all the data with a
nonparametric model rather than trying to summarize it with a parametric
model, because with very large data
sources, the data holds a lot of detail.
For natural language applications,
trust that human language has already
evolved words for the important concepts. See how far you can go by tying together the words that are already
there, rather than by inventing new
concepts with clusters of words. Now
go out and gather some data, and see
what it can do.
1. E. Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” Comm. Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1960, pp. 1–14.
2. R. Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman,
3. H. Kucera, W.N. Francis, and J.B.
Carroll, Computational Analysis of
Present-Day American English, Brown
Univ. Press, 1967.
4. T. Brants and A. Franz, Web 1T 5-Gram
Version 1, Linguistic Data Consortium,
5. S. Riezler, Y. Liu, and A. Vasserman,
“Translating Queries into Snippets for
Improved Query Expansion,” Proc.
22nd Int’l Conf. Computational Linguistics (Coling 08), Assoc. Computational Linguistics, 2008, pp. 737–744.
6. P.P. Talukdar et al., “Learning to Create Data-Integrating Queries,” Proc.
34th Int’l Conf. Very Large Databases
(VLDB 08), Very Large Database Endowment, 2008, pp. 785–796.
7. J. Hays and A.A. Efros, “Scene Completion Using Millions of Photographs,”
Comm. ACM, vol. 51, no. 10, 2008, pp.
8. L. Getoor and B. Taskar, Introduction
to Statistical Relational Learning, MIT
9. B. Taskar et al., “Max-Margin Parsing,”
Proc. Conf. Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP 04),
Assoc. for Computational Linguistics,
2004, pp. 1–8.
10. S. Schoenmackers, O. Etzioni, and D.S.
Weld, “Scaling Textual Inference to
the Web,” Proc. 2008 Conf. Empirical
Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP 08), Assoc. for Computational Linguistics, 2008, pp. 79−88.
11. T. Berners-Lee, J. Hendler, and O. Lassila, “The Semantic Web,” Scientific
Am., 17 May 2001.
12. P. Friedland et al., “Towards a Quantitative, Platform-Independent Analysis of
Knowledge Systems,” Proc. Int’l Conf.
Principles of Knowledge Representation, AAAI Press, 2004, pp. 507–514.
13. “Interview of Tom Gruber,” AIS SIGSEMIS Bull., vol. 1, no. 3, 2004.
14. M.J. Cafarella et al., “WebTables: Exploring the Power of Tables on the Web,”
Proc. Very Large Data Base Endowment (VLDB 08), ACM Press, 2008, pp.
15. M. Paşca, “Organizing and Searching
the World Wide Web of Facts. Step Two:
Harnessing the Wisdom of the Crowds,”
Proc. 16th Int’l World Wide Web Conf.,
ACM Press, 2007, pp. 101–110.
Alon Halevy is a research scientist at Google.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Norvig is a research director at Google.
Contact him at email@example.com.
Fernando Pereira is a research director at
Google. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Choose a representation
that can use unsupervised
learning on unlabeled
data, which is so
much more plentiful
than labeled data.
Authorized licensed use limited to: Univ of Calif Berkeley. Downloaded on February 5, 2010 at 22:51 from IEEE Xplore. Restrictions apply.