An algorithm developed by researchers at Salesforce shows how computers may eventually take on the job of summarizing documents. It uses several machine-learning tricks to produce surprisingly coherent and accurate snippets of text from longer pieces. And while it isn’t yet as good as a person, it hints at how condensing text could eventually become automated.

The algorithm produced, for instance, the following summary of a recent New York Times article about Facebook trying to combat fake news ahead of the U.K.’s upcoming election:

  • Social network published a series of advertisements in newspapers in Britain on Monday.
  • It has removed tens of thousands of fake accounts in Britain.
  • It also said it would hire 3,000 more moderators, almost doubling the number of people worldwide who scan for inappropriate or offensive content.

The Salesforce algorithm is dramatically better than anything developed previously, according to a common software tool for measuring the accuracy of text summaries.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large improvement in any [natural-language-processing] task,” says Richard Socher, chief scientist at Salesforce. Socher is a prominent name in machine learning and natural-language processing, and his startup, MetaMind, was acquired by Salesforce in 2016.

The software is still a long way from matching a human’s ability to capture the essence of document text, and other summaries it produces are sloppier and less coherent. Indeed, summarizing text perfectly would require genuine intelligence, including commonsense knowledge and a mastery of language.

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