Question answering

From Academic Kids

Question Answering (QA) is a type of information retrieval. Given a collection of documents (such as the World Wide Web or a local collection) the system should be able to retrieve answers to questions posed in natural language. QA is regarded as requiring more complex natural language processing (NLP) techniques than other types of information retrieval such as document retrieval, and it is sometimes regarded as the next step beyond search engines.

QA research attempts to deal with a wide range of question types including: factoid, list, definition, How, Why, hypothetical, semantically-constrained, and cross-lingual questions. Search collections vary from small local document collections, to internal organization documents, to compiled newswire reports, to the world wide web.

  • Closed-domain question answering deals with questions under a specific domain (for example, medicine or automotive maintenance), and can be seen as an easier task because NLP systems can exploit domain-specific knowledge such as ontologies.
  • Open-domain question answering deals with questions about nearly everything, and can only rely on general ontologies and world knowledge. On the other hand, these systems usually have much more data available from which to extract the answer.



The first QA systems were developed in the 1960s and they were basically natural-language interfaces to expert systems that were tailored to specific domains. In contrast, current QA systems use text documents as their underlying knowledge source and combine various natural language processing techniques to search for the answers.

Current QA systems typically include a question classifier module that determines the type of question and the type of answer. After the question is analysed, the system typically uses several modules that apply increasingly complex NLP techniques on a gradually reduced amount of text. Thus, a document retrieval module uses search engines to identify the documents or paragraphs in the document set that are likely to contain the answer. Subsequently a filter preselects small text fragments that contains strings of the same type as the expected answer. For example, if the question is "Who invented Penicillin" the filter returns text that contain names of people. Finally, an answer extraction module looks for further clues in the text to determine if the answer candidate can indeed answer the question.

Question Answering Methods

QA is very dependent on a good search corpus - for without documents containing the answer, there is little any QA system can do. It thus makes sense that larger collection sizes generally lend well to better QA performance, unless the question domain is orthogonal to the collection. The notion of data redundancy in massive collections, such as the web, means that nuggets of information are likely to be phrased in many different ways in differing contexts and documents, leading to two benefits:

(1) By having the right information appear in many forms, the burden on the QA system to perform complex NLP techniques to understand the text is lessened.
(2) Correct answers can be filtered from false positives by relying on the correct answer to appear more times in the documents than instances of incorrect ones.


Some methods of QA use keyword-based techniques to locate interesting passages and sentences from the retrieved documents and then filter based on the presence of the desired answer type within that candidate text. Ranking is then done based on syntactic features such as word order or location and similarity to query.

When using massive collections with good data redundancy, some systems use templates to find the final answer in the hope that the answer is just a reformulation of the question. If you posed the question "What is a dog?", the system would detect the substring "What is a X" and look for documents which start with "X is a Y". This often works well on simple "factoid" questions seeking factual tidbits of information such as names, dates, locations, and quantities.


However, in the cases where simple question reformulation or keyword techniques will not suffice, more sophisticated syntactic, semantic and contextual processing must be performed to extract or construct the answer. These techniques might include named-entity recognition, relation detection, coreference resolution, syntactic alternations, word sense disambiguation, logic form transformation, logical inferences (abduction) and commonsense reasoning, temporal or spatial reasoning and so on. These systems will also very often utilize world knowledge that can be found in ontologies such as WordNet, or the Suggested Upper Merged Ontology (SUMO) to augment the available reasoning resources through semantic connections and definitions.

More difficult queries such as Why or How questions, hypothetical postulations, spatially or temporally constrained questions, dialogue queries, badly-worded or ambiguous questions will all need these types of deeper understanding of the question. Complex or ambiguous document passages likewise need more NLP techniques applied to understand the text.

Statistical QA, which introduces statistical question processing and answer extraction modules, is also growing in popularity in the research community. Many of the lower-level NLP tools used, such as part-of-speech tagging, parsing, named-entity detection, sentence boundary detection, and document retrieval, are already available as probabilistic applications.


In 2002 a group of researchers wrote a roadmap of research in question answering (see external links). The following issues were identified.

Question classes 
Different types of questions require the use of different strategies to find the answer. Question classes are arranged hierarchically in taxonomies.
Question processing 
The same information request can be expressed in various ways - some interrogative, some assertive. A semantic model of question understanding and processing is needed, one that would recognize equivalent questions, regardless of the speech act or of the words, syntactic inter-relations or idiomatic forms. This model would enable the translation of a complex question into a series of simpler questions, would identify ambiguities and treat them in context or by interactive clarification.
Context and Q&A 
Questions are usually asked within a context and answers are provided within that specific context. The context can be used to clarify a question, resolve ambiguities or keep track of an investigation performed through a series of questions.
Data sources for Q&A 
Before a question can be answered, it must be known what knowledge sources are available. If the answer to a question is not present in the data sources, not matter how well we perform question processing, retrieval and extraction of the answer, we shall not obtain a correct result.
Answer extraction 
Answer extraction depends on the complexity of the question, on the answer type provided by question processing, on the actual data where the answer is searched, on the search method and on the question focus and context. Given that answer processing depends on such a large number of factors, research for answer processing should be tackled with a lot of care and given special importance.
Answer formulation 
The result of a Q&A system should be presented in a way as natural as possible. In some cases, simple extraction is sufficient. For example, when the question classification indicates that the answer type is a name (of a person, organization, shop or disease, etc), a quantity (monetary value, length, size, distance, etc) or a date (e.g. the answer to the question "On what day did Christmas fall in 1989?") the extraction of a single datum is sufficient. For other cases, the presentation of the answer may require the use of fusion techniques that combine the partial answers from multiple documents.
Real time question answering 
There is need for developing Q&A systems that are capable of extracting answers from large data sets in several seconds, regardless of the complexity of the question, the size and multitude of the data sources or the ambiguity of the question.
Multi-lingual question answering 
The ability of developing Q&A systems for other languages than English is very important. Moreover, the ability of finding answers in texts written in languages other than English, when an English question is asked is very important.
Interactive Q&A 
It is often the case that the information need is not well captured by a Q&A system, as the question processing part may fail to classify properly the question or the information needed for extracting and generating the answer is not easily retrieved. In such cases, the questioner might want not only to reformulate the question, but (s)he might want to have a dialogue with the system.
Advanced reasoning for Q&A 
More sophisticated questioners expect answers which are outside the scope of written texts or structured databases. To upgrade a Q&A system with such capabilities, we need to integrate reasoning components operating on a variety of knowledge bases, encoding world knowledge and common-sense reasoning mechanisms as well as knowledge specific to a variety of domains.
User profiling for Q&A 
The user profile captures data about the questioner, comprising context data, domain of interest, reasoning schemes frequently used by the questioner, common ground established within different dialogues between the system and the user etc. The profile may be represented as a predefined template, where each template slot represents a different profile feature. Profile templates may be nested one within another.

External links

QA systems regularly compete in the TREC competition and some of them have demos available on the World Wide Web.


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