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Department of Computer Science and Technology

Wheeler Lectures


Wheeler Lectures

Language, learning and creativity

The seventh annual wheeler lecture was given at the Computer Laboratory on Wednesday 30th May, 2018. The speaker was Prof. Stephen Pulman who spoke on the linguistic aspects of the Turing test, the creative aspect of language use, and the implications for machine learning.


It’s nearly 70 years since the Turing test was proposed as an operational test for intelligence in computers, and it is still a subject that provokes much discussion. One important aspect of the Turing Test is linguistic ability, and one important aspect of that ability is what Chomsky called “the creative aspect of language use”, the ability of language to serve as “an instrument for free expression of thought, unbounded in scope, uncontrolled by stimulus conditions though appropriate to situations”.

With every new wave of progress in artificial intelligence, such as that promised by the current “deep learning” paradigm, it’s natural to ask the question whether these advances get us any nearer to a machine that could pass the Turing test, or that could use language creatively. In this talk, I’ll explore these issues, in particular looking at some parallels between the implications for human learning that we could derive from current deep learning methods, and the intellectual climate of behaviourism and empiricism in language learning and use that Chomsky was reacting against.

Stephen Pulman is the Professor of Computational Linguistics in the University of Oxford, a Professorial Fellow of Somerville College and a Fellow of the British Academy. He was previously a Lecturer in Natural Language Processing at the Computer Laboratory between 1984 and 1997, before becoming Deputy Head of the Laboratory between 1999 and 2000. He has been at the University of Oxford since 2000.


The programme for the day was as follows:

  • 16:15 Wheeler lecture.
  • 17:30 Drinks reception.