Multi-Agent Reinforcement Learning as a Computational Tool for Language Evolution Research: Historical Context and Future Challenges

02/20/2020 ∙ by Clément Moulin-Frier, et al. ∙ Inria 0

Computational models of emergent communication in agent populations are currently gaining interest in the machine learning community due to recent advances in Multi-Agent Reinforcement Learning (MARL). Current contributions are however still relatively disconnected from the earlier theoretical and computational literature aiming at understanding how language might have emerged from a prelinguistic substance. The goal of this paper is to position recent MARL contributions within the historical context of language evolution research, as well as to extract from this theoretical and computational background a few challenges for future research.



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Origins, formation and forms

There is a wide variety of approaches to studying the conditions in which human language might have emerged [Christiansen and Kirby2003]. As we will see, computer simulations have historically played an important role in the field. We can divide the problem in three sub-parts [Oudeyer2006]. Firstly, the study of the forms of language, i.e. of the structure of the phonemic, semantic, syntactic or pragmatic systems constituting it. Secondly, the study of its formation, i.e. of the genesis of these forms through sensory-motor, cognitive, environmental, social, cultural or evolutionary processes. Thirdly, the study of the origins, i.e. of the biological and environmental conditions that could have bootstrapped the formation process.

Under the infinite variety of its forms, human language is characterized by obvious regularities, the universals of language, which we find for example at the phonemic level (with vowels present in almost all languages of the world, [Maddieson and Precoda1989]) and syntactic level (all languages have a recursive hierarchical structure, see e.g. [Pinker and Bloom1990]). A fundamental research question concerns the origins of these regularities. Three main arguments are proposed in the literature. In the Chomskyan view of a genetically specified language acquisition device [Chomsky1965], a common innate language competence shared by all humans would explain the regularities observed in the different languages. Another view about the universal properties of human languages may be found in the hypothesis of a common origin, by which human languages would derive from an African mother tongue [Ruhlen1996], imposing some common traces in spite of further cultural evolution producing their diversity. A third view considers that the forms of human language are the emergent product of an optimization process, inducing some commonality in the achieved solutions because of commonality in the cognitive mechanisms at hand, and because of common exterior constraints. This is the view first popularized by [Lindblom1984], through a proposal to ”derive language from non-language”. This last proposal opened a whole research program aiming at understanding the formation of human language, i.e. how a non-linguistic substance consisting in all the biological, cognitive and environmental mechanisms present before language, could both bootstrap its emergence and shape its universal properties, its form.

Theories on the formation of language

A large proportion of these theories postulate of a joint evolution of cooperative and communicative behaviors [Smith2010, Gärdenfors2002, Ghazanfar and Takahashi2014, Tomasello et al.2012]. It is in particular the central thesis of the theory developed by Michael Tomasello, who proposes that ”humans’ species-unique forms of cooperation –as well as their species-unique forms of cognition, communication, and social life—all derive from mutualistic collaboration (with social selection against cheaters)” [Tomasello et al.2012] . In this view, it is the constraints imposed by the ecological niche occupied by human beings that has forced them to jointly develop complex collaborative and communicative behaviors, in a context of interdependence requiring the sharing of intentions. We also find compatible arguments in the mirror system hypothesis developed by Michael Arbib [Arbib2005] proposing that language evolution is grounded in the sensory-motor integration required for the execution and the observation of transitive actions towards objects, enabling other’s intention recognition and providing the bases of a syntactic structure [Roy and Arbib2005] (see also [Iriki and Taoka2012] for theoretical propositions on the coevolution of tool use and language in humans). Finally, the social complexity hypothesis suggests that groups with complex social structures require more complex communication systems to regulate interactions between group members [Freeberg, Dunbar, and Ord2012].

Other theories highlight the role of sensory-motor learning and exploration as a key element to understand how speech communication could emerge from pre-existing morphological, perceptual and behavioral constraints [Lindblom1984, MacNeilage1998, Schwartz et al.2012]. A few theoretical contributions have proposed a potential role of curiosity-driven exploration in both language acquisition [Oller2000] and evolution [Oudeyer and Smith2015].

From verbal to computational descriptions

A major limitation of most of the theories mentioned above is that they are described in a verbal form. They are of course supported by experimental data but the description of the underlying hypotheses regarding the formation of linguistic structures mostly relies on a verbal explanation. This can be problematic because the aim of those theories is precisely to describe a complex dynamical process where linguistic structures emerge from multiple constraints in a prelinguistic environment (e.g. morphological, sensory-motor, cognitive, developmental, evolutionary or cultural constraints). Computer simulation is required to study the emergent properties of such a complex dynamical system.

For this reason, computational modeling has played a major role in language evolution research. Already in the 70s, Lindblom’s ”Dispersion Theory” [Liljencrants and Lindblom1972] proposed that human phonological systems are optimized for maximizing auditory distances between phoneme pairs in order to enhance distinguishability. In these early contributions, language forms (e.g. the form of vowel systems) are considered as the equilibrium of a macroscopic system, analog to how thermodynamics describes changes in macroscopic physical quantities. In the 90s, these ”global” approaches were completed by ”local” approaches, were the equilibrium emerges from the interaction of ”microscopic” elements, analog to statistical mechanics showing how the concepts from macroscopic observations are related to the description of microscopic states. These local approaches usually involve interacting prelinguistic agents and study how properties of human language can emerge from these interactions. A well-known example is the naming game paradigm showing how a shared communication system, associating signals emitted by the agents with semantic references to the external world, can self-organize out of a decentralized learning process from the local interactions between the agents [Steels1997] (see [de Boer2000, Moulin-Frier et al.2015] for extensions to vocal communication and [Oudeyer2005a, de Boer and Zuidema2010] for extensions to combinatorial communication). However, these naming game models rarely address the issue of the functionality of communication (i.e. why to communicate?). Models from the field of evolutionary robotics [Quinn2001, Grouchy et al.2016] have the advantage of considering more realistic interaction scenarios than naming games but they specifically focus on genetic evolution algorithms, which do not consider the role of sensory-motor learning processes.

Computational models of emergent communication in agent populations are currently gaining interest in the machine learning community, due in particular to recent advances in Multi-Agent Reinforcement Learning (MARL) (see [Hernandez-Leal, Kartal, and Taylor2019] for a survey). These new possibilities have allowed to overcome certain limitations of earlier contributions in two main directions. On the one hand, the paradigm of naming games presented above has been extended to more realistic references to the external world, learning directly from observations of raw images [Lazaridou et al.2018]. On the other hand, recent contributions based on the paradigm of partially-observable cooperative Markov games [Littman1994, Leibo et al.2017] have shown how a communication system can emerge to solve cooperative tasks in sequential environments [Sukhbaatar, Szlam, and Fergus2016, Mordatch and Abbeel2017, Foerster et al.2016]. These contributions adopt an utilitarian view of communication, where communication emerges as a way to solve complex cooperative tasks [Gauthier and Mordatch2016].

Extracting future challenges for MARL

The utilitarian approach relying on partially observable cooperative Markov games provides a powerful conceptual and computational framework for modeling emergent communication as a way to solve complex problems in sequential environments. However, existing contributions are still relatively disconnected from the earlier literature presented in the previous section. In this section, we will extract from this theoretical and computational background a few challenges for future MARL research.

Decentralized learning

As mentioned in the previous section, the first models attempting to predict language forms from a prelinguistic substance adopted a global, macroscopic approach. This global approach has then be complemented by a local, microscopic approach where language forms emerges from the repeated interactions between individual agents.

A large proportion of current MARL contributions rely on ”centralized learning decentralized execution” algorithms [Sukhbaatar, Szlam, and Fergus2016, Mordatch and Abbeel2017, Foerster et al.2016], analog to a global macroscopic approach. While centralized learning is useful to efficiently solve complex problems, the lack of biological plausibility strongly limits its use in language evolution research. Contributions relying on decentralized learning (e.g. [Jaques et al.2019]) are less efficient from a performance point of view but have the advantage of highlighting important issues regarding the unstable nature of cooperative and communicative behavior in multi-agent environments, due e.g. to the non-stationarity it induces. How to solve such issues is an important question for both MARL and language evolution research.

Role of morphological and sensory-motor constraints

Current MARL contributions mostly rely on an idealized communication channel where the signal produced by an agent is directly broadcasted to other agents [Sukhbaatar, Szlam, and Fergus2016, Mordatch and Abbeel2017, Foerster et al.2016], similar to earlier contributions based on the naming game paradigm. In contrast, speech communication is strongly shaped by sensory-motor constraints, involving the control of vocal articulators (e.g. the jaw, the tongue, the lips) for modulating a sound wave resulting in the perception of acoustic features. Vocal control is actually a classical robotic problem, where the agent has to decide how to move vocal articulators to reach acoustic targets. This control problem is a difficult one due to the complex morphology of the vocal tract, the highly non-linear nature of the articulatory-to-acoustic transformation, as well as the presence of acoustic noise in the environment. Earlier contributions have studied how vocal communication can emerge from the interaction of sensory-motor agents equipped with articulatory synthesizers, i.e. computer models of the human vocal tract able to generate sound waves from articulator trajectories [Moulin-Frier et al.2015, Moulin-Frier, Nguyen, and Oudeyer2014]. This resulted in multi-agent simulations able to predict the statistical tendencies of the phonological systems used in world languages [Oudeyer2005b], as well as to test hypotheses regarding the influence of prelinguistic orofacial behaviors on the syllabic structure of speech communication ([Moulin-Frier et al.2015], following an hypothesis from [MacNeilage1998]). Introducing biologically plausible sensory-motor abilities of signal production and perception in MARL models would allow to extend the aforementioned results to more complex environments and learning abilities.

Role of intrinsic motivation

A few theoretical contributions have proposed a potential role of curiosity-driven exploration in both language acquisition [Oller2000] and evolution [Oudeyer and Smith2015]. Active exploration can spontaneously generate diverse behaviors from modality-independent and task-independent internal drives. Such spontaneous behavior can result in vocal activity that may have bootstrapped the emergence of communication. This hypothesis is supported by computational simulations showing a role of curiosity-driven exploration in vocal development [Moulin-Frier, Nguyen, and Oudeyer2014], social affordance discovery [Oudeyer and Kaplan2006] and the active control of complexity growth in naming games [Schueller and Oudeyer2015].

Despite recent progress in curiosity-driven reinforcement learning [Pathak et al.2017, Colas et al.2019], very few MARL contributions have used such algorithms for studying emergent communication (see [Jaques et al.2019] but which is using a method specific to social interactions on a single task). It is a promising direction of research to explore how general-purpose curiosity-driven multi-task reinforcement learning algorithms (e.g. [Colas et al.2019]) can be integrated in multi-agent environments to encourage the discovery of complex communication systems supporting the acquisition of an open-ended repertoire of cooperative skills.

Emergent complexity

Earlier contributions in language evolution modeling has often been limited by the use of simplistic simulation environments and learning abilities. Recent advances in MARL can allow to overcome these limitations to show how language complexity can emerge as a way to optimize behavior in complex cooperative environments. In particular, recent contributions in MARL have shown how an autocurriculum of increasingly complex behaviors can emerge from agent’s coadaptation in mixed cooperative-competitive environments [Bansal et al.2018, Baker et al.2019]. Can such an auto-curriculum through coadaptation favor the emergence of increasingly complex communicative systems? In turn, can complex communication favor the emergence of increasingly complex cooperative strategies? Addressing these open questions can could potentially help to understand the processes that have shaped the impressive complexity of human language.


Recent advances in MARL provides a powerful conceptual and computational framework for modeling emergent communication as a way to solve complex problems in sequential environments. There are however important differences in the methodology and the objectives between 1) implementing efficient and robust multi-agent systems learning how to communicate for solving complex problems (as it is the case in the majority of recent MARL contributions), vs. 2) using multi-agent learning as a computational tool for better understanding human language evolution (an approach which has historically played an important role in language evolution research, see [Oudeyer2006] for an epistemological analysis). In this paper we have reviewed earlier computational contributions and have extracted from them a few future challenges for MARL research.


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