The Affordance-Based Concept

Sept. 1, 2005


Gorniak, P. "The Affordance-Based Concept"


Natural language use relies on situational context. The meaning of words and utterances depend on the physical environment and the goals and plans of communication partners. These facts should be central to theories of language and automatic language understanding systems. Instead, they are often ignored, leading to partial theories and systems that cannot fully interpret linguistic meaning.

I introduce a new computational theory of conceptual structure that has as its core claim that concepts are neither internal nor external to the language user, but instead span the objective-subjective boundary. This theory proposes interaction and prediction as a central theme, rather than solely emphasizing deducing, sensing or acting. To capture the possible interactions between subject and object, the theory relies on the notion of perceived affordances: structured units of interaction that can be used for prediction at certain levels of abstraction. By using perceived affordances as a basis for language understanding, the theory accounts for many aspects of the situated nature of human language use. It provides a unified solution to a number of other demands on a theory of language understanding including conceptual combination, prototypicality effects, and the generative nature of lexical items.

To support the theory, I describe an implementation that relies on probabilistic hierarchical plan recognition to predict possible interactions. The elements of a recognized plan provide an instance of perceived affordances which are used by a linguistic parser to ground the meaning of words and grammatical constituents. Evaluations performed in a multiuser role playing game environment show that this implementation captures the meaning of free-form spontaneous directive speech acts that cannot be understood without taking into account the intentional and physical situation of speaker and listener.

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