Compositional Generalization in Unsupervised Compositional Representation Learning: A Study on Disentanglement and Emergent Language

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 (NeurIPS 2022) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Zhenlin Xu, Marc Niethammer, Colin A. Raffel


Deep learning models struggle with compositional generalization, i.e. the ability to recognize or generate novel combinations of observed elementary concepts. In hopes of enabling compositional generalization, various unsupervised learning algorithms have been proposed with inductive biases that aim to induce compositional structure in learned representations (e.g. disentangled representation and emergent language learning). In this work, we evaluate these unsupervised learning algorithms in terms of how well they enable \textit{compositional generalization}. Specifically, our evaluation protocol focuses on whether or not it is easy to train a simple model on top of the learned representation that generalizes to new combinations of compositional factors. We systematically study three unsupervised representation learning algorithms - $\beta$-VAE, $\beta$-TCVAE, and emergent language (EL) autoencoders - on two datasets that allow directly testing compositional generalization. We find that directly using the bottleneck representation with simple models and few labels may lead to worse generalization than using representations from layers before or after the learned representation itself. In addition, we find that the previously proposed metrics for evaluating the levels of compositionality are not correlated with actual compositional generalization in our framework. Surprisingly, we find that increasing pressure to produce a disentangled representation (e.g. increasing $\beta$ in the $\beta$-VAE) produces representations with worse generalization, while representations from EL models show strong compositional generalization. Motivated by this observation, we further investigate the advantages of using EL to induce compositional structure in unsupervised representation learning, finding that it shows consistently stronger generalization than disentanglement models, especially when using less unlabeled data for unsupervised learning and fewer labels for downstream tasks. Taken together, our results shed new light onto the compositional generalization behavior of different unsupervised learning algorithms with a new setting to rigorously test this behavior, and suggest the potential benefits of developing EL learning algorithms for more generalizable representations. Our code is publicly available at .