New Words

New Words is a speculative research project exploring the use of machine learning for the evolution of language. Large language models (LLM's) are fantastic at capturing our language as it currently is - but language is constantly evolving and adapting. Can machine learning help us create something truly new and unbounded by its training data?

A collaboration with Ryan Murdock



The combination of Arousal, criticism and Joy

[ 'rez(ə)nəs ]

Usage: The actor's powerful and emotional performance on stage elicited a resonous mix of emotions and responses among theatergoers.


When you're searching for something, and it's right in front of you, but you don't see it until you've looked multiple times

[ bæm'buːdʒd ]

Usage: I spent hours bambooged in my cluttered room, desperately searching for my misplaced keys, only to discover that they were sitting on the kitchen counter right in front of me the whole time.


A person with the the vibes of prickly, insidious, red

[ 'rəˌtāhärSh ]

Usage: Even though she seemed friendly at first glance, her behavior during the meeting revealed a petulant, irritharsh personality.


The combination of boasting, Joy and criticizing

[ kəm'plɪsɪv ]

Usage: Complisive: The captured ringleader was complisive regarding his co-conspirators misdeeds.


Trying to gracefully leave a conversation

[ 'swɜrɪŋ ]


orange, sandy, and spherical

[ piːtʃbrɔd ]


That moment when you suddenly forget what you were about to say or do and need a brief pause to mentally "refresh" and remember.

[ ˈθɔtɪŋ ]


When you wave or greet someone you think you know from a distance, only to realize it's not the person you thought it was

[ ɔːˈkɛnd ]


Ryan: My part of this project started with images, asking: how would a CLIP model caption an image given severe restraints on its vocabulary that were progressively tightened? Providing the constraint that no typical description could be applied turned into a sort of forced novelty search, testing how far these limits could be pushed while still producing a fitting caption. For example, the image below was titled 'Menstruhaunted Rainfall' (2021) using this method with the constraint that no obvious words like "tree" or "blood" that first come to mind could be used. As is often the case for humans, constraints can provide a clear path towards more interesting results.

Joel: My earlier works - Dimensions of Dialogue (part1 and part2 - tablets) - were attempts to explore how machine learning networks could create new and emergent language artifacts via relatively simple rules and new ML architectures. This was part of a small wave of research exploring data-free generative ML. The rise of LLM's has many implications for language, but are they capable of truly new things or merely using the existing language frozen? When asked, ChatGPT is unable to invent new works beyond simple portmanteaus. This work is motivated by the organic & social evolution of language. Generative technology is at its best when it can inspire us with the possibilities of what can be.


Part 1 - Discover candidate phrases or word spaces

To generate candidate phrases we surveyed sparse areas of clip space and also manually selected phrases by exploring known words in other language or common English expressions without words.

Discovering empty clip spaces: All English nouns, verbs, and adjectives were embedded into clip-text space to form the "word-set." Then, 1000 random "probe" embeddings were generated to form the "probe-set." Each probe was iteratively moved to the midpoint of its nearest neighbors in the word-set until convergence. Then, elements of the probe-set with the highest average distance to their nearest neighbors in the word set were selected and manually filtered. These words were the midpoints of large empty spaces.

Part 2 - Generate

After we've found the phenomenon that needs word, we create a set of learnable parameters that each represent one word in CLIP's vocabulary for each token we want to learn. We then use the Gumbel Softmax Trick to map each set of parameters to a single possible CLIP token, and optimize the cosine similarity of the produced CLIP embedding and whatever other image/text embedding we like. We constrain the model to use words outside of the description and to only learn a few tokens without spaces in them.

Hard Prompts Made Easy by Wen et al. uses a similar approach but approximates gradients to obtain real word embeddings. Before Wen et al., RiversHaveWings & I separately found that the Gumbel Softmax trick works & separately decided not to release notebooks due to bias concerns.

Future work


This project was done while Joel & Ryan were residents at Stochastic Labs summer 2023 residency on AI and specifically during a Sunday hackathon at replicate.