None/Some/All … Are Suicide Bombers & Probabilistic Programming Languages

The Design and Implementation of Probabilistic Programming Languages by Noah D. Goodman and Andreas Stuhlmüller.


Probabilistic programming languages (PPLs) unify techniques for the formal description of computation and for the representation and use of uncertain knowledge. PPLs have seen recent interest from the artificial intelligence, programming languages, cognitive science, and natural languages communities. This book explains how to implement PPLs by lightweight embedding into a host language. We illustrate this by designing and implementing WebPPL, a small PPL embedded in Javascript. We show how to implement several algorithms for universal probabilistic inference, including priority-based enumeration with caching, particle filtering, and Markov chain Monte Carlo. We use program transformations to expose the information required by these algorithms, including continuations and stack addresses. We illustrate these ideas with examples drawn from semantic parsing, natural language pragmatics, and procedural graphics.

If you want to sharpen the discussion of probabilistic programming languages, substitute in the pragmatics example:

‘none/some/all of the children are suicide bombers’,

The substitution raises the issue of how “certainty” can/should vary depending upon the gravity of results.

Who is a nice person?, has low stakes.

Who is a suicide bomber?, has high stakes.

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