Crossing the Conversational Chasm: A Primer on Natural Language Processing for Multilingual Task-Oriented Dialogue Systems
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In task-oriented dialogue (ToD), a user holds a conversation with an artificial agent with the aim of completing a concrete task. Although this technology represents one of the central objectives of AI and has been the focus of ever more intense research and development efforts, it is currently limited to a few narrow domains (e.g., food ordering, ticket booking) and a handful of languages (e.g., English, Chinese). This work provides an extensive overview of existing methods and resources in multilingual ToD as an entry point to this exciting and emerging field. We find that the most critical factor preventing the creation of truly multilingual ToD systems is the lack of datasets in most languages for both training and evaluation. In fact, acquiring annotations or human feedback for each component of modular systems or for data-hungry end-to-end systems is expensive and tedious. Hence, state-of-the-art approaches to multilingual ToD mostly rely on (zero- or few-shot) cross-lingual transfer from resource-rich languages (almost exclusively English), either by means of (i) machine translation or (ii) multilingual representations. These approaches are currently viable only for typologically similar languages and languages with parallel / monolingual corpora available. On the other hand, their effectiveness beyond these boundaries is doubtful or hard to assess due to the lack of linguistically diverse benchmarks (especially for natural language generation and end-to-end evaluation). To overcome this limitation, we draw parallels between components of the ToD pipeline and other NLP tasks, which can inspire solutions for learning in low-resource scenarios. Finally, we list additional challenges that multilinguality poses for related areas (such as speech, fluency in generated text, and human-centred evaluation), and indicate future directions that hold promise to further expand language coverage and dialogue capabilities of current ToD systems.