Studying complexity of concepts in language and thought

An interview with Jakub Szymanik

18 October 2016

Jakub Szymanik studied philosophy, psychology, mathematics, and linguistics at the Individual Studies in the Humanities (MISH), University of Warsaw, where he obtained MA in the area of logic at the Institute of Philosophy. Then he went to the ILLC and defended PhD on computational complexity of generalized quantifiers in natural language, under the supervision of Johan van Benthem, Marcin Mostowski, and Theo Janssen. He then did post-docs in Stockholm with Peter Pagin and in Groningen with Rineke Verbrugge. There, he developed an interest in the cognitive and computational constraints on social interaction. Jakub has been part of the SMART organizing committee since 2013.

“I got interested in philosophy in high school. Already then I was especially attracted by the philosophy of language, epistemology, and logic. So, I took part in ‘Olympic games’ for high school philosophers. It went very well and I even went to Budapest for the international competition. After that, I needed to choose a university program. Philosophy was the obvious candidate but I also wanted to study logic as I had learned a lot about foundations of mathematics. Luckily, in Warsaw back then they offered a master program where you could construct your individual study track (supported by a mentor). At the beginning I studied mostly philosophy and linguistics. But it was logic that really picked my interest. After the second year my mentor told me that if I want to do more logic I needed to do BA courses in mathematics. And so I did. This taught me not only about math but also a lot of humility and tenacity. In terms of studying logic I was back then focusing on typical Polish topics: set theory, arithmetic, and model theory. However, there was also a growing interest in the community in the study of finite model theory and computational complexity. This is how I learned about different mathematical ways of capturing the complexity of concepts. Gradually I got more and more interested in applying these techniques to capture cognitive difficulty. Hence, I started studying psychology as well. I did all BA-level courses and then everything on cognitive psychology. In the mean time I also wrote my Master thesis in logic in the philosophy department. This was about the semantic automata model invented by Johan van Benthem in the ‘80s. I wanted to continue this work and I was lucky enough to get a PhD position within ILLC, where Johan became my supervisor. Even though it was not anymore in the center of Johan’s interests, he was willing to advice me.  My PhD thesis ended up being rather theoretical. I studied computational complexity of natural language quantifiers and was interested in the algorithmic theory of meaning. In the last year I really wanted to connect back with the initial idea I had of applying complexity results in psychology. This is when I ran my first experiments, comparing predictions of the semantic automata model with subjects’ behavior. After that I knew I want to learn more about cognitive science.  I did a number of post-docs, one in Sweden and one in Groningen and continued experimental work.  Today, I am still working on the intersection of logic, linguistics, and cognitive science.”

“I just received an ERC starting grant. The idea of the project is to build a semantic system based on cognitive representations. I will focus mostly on quantifiers and vagueness. We know a lot about how people represent numerosities. Cognitive science has discovered many mathematical properties of such representations. I will take it as a starting point and build a formal semantics around these notions. The project will connect between research in cognitive science, linguistics, and logic.

The project is divided into subprojects, with two post-docs and one PhD. One post-doc will be a logician re-doing formal semantics in a way that will make it possible to plug in cognitive representations. This work should already give certain predictions about linguistic processing. The PhD student will then run experiments to study the predictions. The second post-doc will be a cognitive modeler. We want to implement the new semantic system in ACT-R cognitive architecture. I chose ACT-R because my sense is that this is the best architecture to really connect with logic, as it has a very explicit symbolic part. The good thing is that it also has non-symbolic part that should help to capture the properties of cognitive representations.”

“My research has a strong linguistic component. I want to understand the complexity of concepts. I believe this complexity is reflected in the way people use and process language. One may think about semantic complexity (inherent complexity of meaning) as another kind of semantic universal. For instance, if you think about quantifiers in natural language, like ‘some’, ‘most’ and so on, you can build a mathematical theory of such expressions (known as generalized quantifier theory, GQT). GQT predicts existence of many possible quantifiers with different meanings. However, natural languages only realize very few of these meanings, usually the simplest ones in terms of semantic complexity. The question is: what are the properties of the quantifiers that natural languages do realize. Or, from a more cognitive perspective, why these properties? Does it have something to do with the evolution of language, communicative pressure, or language acquisition?”

“I joined the SMART committee as one of my goals has been to help building a bridge between ABC, ILLC, and FGw. I do think that the interactions between cognitive science and the humanities are growing, but it is still not enough. SMART is a tool we use to make progress here. I enjoy the wide interdisciplinary range of topics we cover every year, and I am glad to see that this gets broader and broader. It is also a good learning experience to see how different concepts in cognitive science and humanities interact in the corners of the scientific agenda that I would normally not look into. I find that very inspiring.”

“About academia. I’m not a fun of the culture of business. Everyone always complains how busy he or she is. This is of course true but maybe it would be better if we keep it to ourselves, and try not to stress out everyone else even more. I also believe that as a community we could be doing more to protect our research time. Personally, I have the feeling that it is not that much a problem with time but with priorities, attention, and energy. You can always organize your time better, but only if you have enough energy and motivation, and can refrain from unimportant tasks.”

“Sometimes, if you start to understand academia better and better, it feels a bit disappointing. You see all these mechanisms and social underpinnings and they make you think to what extent you want to participate in this or that. Occasionally that does make me think about career choices. However, first of all one probably has similar (or even worse) feeling in other fields and most importantly this is not connected to content. I am very much into doing research and there is a price I am willing to pay. I think this is actually how most researchers are.”

“I am concerned about universities becoming more and more corporate. This is very risky for science. We have to keep asking ourselves whether some of the recent ‘improvements’ make science better or worse, and keep acting accordingly. As an individual you can try to get involved in various decision-making procedures and express your opinions. But you can also simply try to do what you really believe in, at least to a certain extent. ”

“In my free time I do a lot of sports. It helps me to focus and mentally organize. I have been climbing for almost 20 years and I am still trying to improve. This is what relaxes me the most. Training gives a feeling of being in control even when everything else feels like a total chaos. I am also interested in cognitive science underlying sports. Our idea of intelligence is very much connected to abstract thinking, so I feel we often overlook sport as an interesting field of study. For me it is really inspiring to understand what is going on in sports, how athletes make decisions, predict the behavior of other athletes, and so on.”

“I enjoy living in Amsterdam but I still feel a bit like an expat. But I do not mind actually and I guess it will change with time. I do miss Warsaw a bit, mostly because of cultural and social-political life. What seems attractive to me in Poland is that I could very easily get involved in different things beyond academia. And I also miss old friends. They all went to do a variety of jobs; they are lawyers, artists, professional politicians, journalists, etc. So when I go back to Warsaw and I go out with friends it is very interesting. In Amsterdam I mostly hang out with academic friends but that will probably change with time, too.”



Gisela Govaart, October 2016

Published by  SMART Cognitive Science