First Tragedy, then Parse: History Repeats Itself in the New Era of Large Language Models


Many NLP researchers are experiencing an existential crisis triggered by the astonishing success of ChatGPT and other systems based on large language models (LLMs). After such a disruptive change to our understanding of the field, what is left to do? Taking a historical lens, we look for guidance from the first era of LLMs, which began in 2005 with large n-gram models for machine translation. We identify durable lessons from the first era, and more importantly, we identify evergreen problems where NLP researchers can continue to make meaningful contributions in areas where LLMs are ascendant. Among these lessons, we discuss the primacy of hardware advancement in shaping the availability and importance of scale, as well as the urgent challenge of quality evaluation, both automated and human. We argue that disparities in scale are transient and that researchers can work to reduce them; that data, rather than hardware, is still a bottleneck for many meaningful applications; that meaningful evaluation informed by actual use is still an open problem; and that there is still room for speculative approaches.

arXiv preprint
Naomi Saphra
Naomi Saphra
Gradient Descent Spectator

Naomi Saphra is a researcher in NLP and machine learning.