A gentle introduction to embeddings at the inaugural GenAI Nework Melbourne meetup

I was thrilled to help kick-off the GenAI Network Melbourne meetup at their first meeting recently. I presented a talk titled Semantic hide and seek – a gentle introduction to embeddings, based on my experiments with Semantle, other representation learning, and some discussion of what it means to use Generative AI in developing new products and services. It was a pleasure to present alongside Rajesh Vasa from A2I2 at Deakin University.

Thanks to Ned, Orian, Scott, Alex, Leonard & co for organising. Looking forward to more fun events in this series!

Check out the slides.


Background on embeddings

Animated chart mosaic titled This wheelie does not exist. Shows a single dimension (duration) mapping to a 3D latent space which in turn generates a realistic looking 100 sample wheelie trace

The game Semantle and my solvers

  • About the game, and playing with friends
  • Live online solver demo!
  • Solver project aims: experiment with embeddings, automate solutions, explore how people and machines work together on problems
  • Modular solver design and search strategies, illustrated below
Diagram showing modular solver design including semantic model with limited vocabulary, informing search state that determines the next guess to make based on the game state, which can also be influenced by other players' guesses. The cohort and gradient search strategies are shown below.

Reflections on people and machines working together

Diagram Comparing the SECI model with naive automation (means all tacit stages are lost) and augmentation with machines that can help socialise to reinforce the cycle

Smarter Semantle Solvers

A little smarter, anyway. I didn’t expect to pick this up again, but when I occasionally run the first generation solvers online, I’m often equal parts amused and frustrated by rare words thrown up that delay the solution – from amethystine to zigging.

Animation of online semantle solution
An example solution with fewer than typical rare words guessed

The solvers used the first idea that worked; can we make some tweaks to make them smarter? The code is now migrated to its own new repo after outgrowing its old home.

Measuring smarts

I measure solver performance by running multiple trials of a solver configuration against the simulator for a variety of target words. This gives a picture of how often the solver typically succeeds within a certain number of guesses.

Chart showing cumulative distribution function curves for two solver configurations


It turns out that the vocabulary to date based on english_words_set is a poor match for the most frequently used English words, according to unigram frequency data.

So we might expect that simply replacing the solver vocabulary would improve performance, and we also get word ranking from unigram_freq.

Semantic models

We’ll continue with Universal Sentence Encoder (USE) to ensure search strategies are robust to different semantic models.


To improve the gradient solver I tried making another random guess every so often to avoid long stretches exploring local minima. But it didn’t make things better, and probably made them worse!

In response, I made each guess the most common local word to the extrapolated semantic location, rather than just the nearest word. Still no better, and trying both “improvements” together was significantly worse!

Ah well, experiments only fail if we fail to learn from them!

Vocabulary again

I think the noise inherent in a different semantic model, plus the existing random extrapolation distance, overwhelms the changes I tried. In better news, we see a major improvement from using unigram freq vocabulary, reducing the mean from 280 (with many searches capped at 500) to 198, approximately a 30% improvement.

Smarter still?

Here we see that the data-centric (vocabulary) improvement had a far bigger impact than any model-centric (search algorithm) improvement that I had the patience to try (though I left a bunch of further todos). Maybe just guessing randomly from the top n words will be better again! ????

At least I’ve made a substantial dent in reducing those all-too-common guesses at rare words.

Synthesising Semantle Solvers

Picking up threads from previous posts on solving Semantle word puzzles with machine learning, we’re ready to explore how different solvers might play along with people while playing the game online. Maybe you’d like to play speed Semantle against an artificially intelligent opponent, maybe you’d like a left-of-field hint on a tricky puzzle, or maybe it’s just fun to spectate at a cerebral robot battle.

Animation of a Semantle game from initial guess to completion

Substitute semantics

The solvers have a view of how words relate due to a similarity model that is encapsulated for ease of change. To date, we’ve used the same model as live Semantle, which is word2vec. But as this might be considered cheating, we can now also use a model based on the Universal Sentence Encoder (USE), to explore how the solvers perform with separated semantics.

Solver spec

To recap, the key elements of the solver ecosystem are now:

  • SimilarityModel – choice of word2vec or USE as above,
  • Solver methods (common to both gradient and cohort variants):
    • make_guess() – return a guess that is based on the solver’s current state, but don’t change the solver’s state,
    • merge_guess(guess, score) – update the solver’s state with information about a guess and a score,
  • Scoring of guesses by either the simulator or a Semantle game, where a game could also include guesses from other players.
Diagram illustrating elements of the solver ecosystem. Similarity model initialises solver state used to make guesses, which are scored by game and update solver state with scores. Other players can make guesses which also get scored

It’s a simplified reinforcement learning setup. Different combinations of these elements allow us to explore different scenarios.

Solver suggestions

Let’s look at how solvers might play with people. The base scenario friends is the actual history of a game played with people, completed in 109 guesses.

Word2Vec similarity

Solvers could complete a puzzle from an initial sequence of guesses from friends. Both solvers in this particular configuration generally easily better the friends result when primed with the first 10 friend guesses.

Line chart comparing three irregular but increasing lines that represent the sequence of scores for guesses in a semantle game. The three lines are labelled friends, cohort, and gradient. Cohort finishes with fewest guesses, then gradient, then friends, with clear separation.

Solvers could instead make the next guess only, but based on the game history up to that point. Both solvers may permit a finish in slightly fewer guesses. The conclusion is that these solvers are good for hints, especially if they are followed!

Line chart comparing three irregular but increasing lines that represent the sequence of scores for guesses in a semantle game. The three lines are labelled friends, cohort, and gradient. Cohort finishes with fewest guesses, then gradient, then friends, with marginal differences.

Maybe these solvers using word2vec similarity do have an unfair advantage though – how do they perform with a different similarity model? Using USE instead, I expected the cohort solver to be more robust than the gradient solver…

USE similarity

… but it seems that the gradient descent solver is more robust to a disparate similarity model, as one example of the completion scenario shows.

Line chart comparing three irregular but increasing lines that represent the sequence of scores for guesses in a semantle game. The three lines are labelled friends, cohort, and gradient. Gradient finishes with fewest guesses, then friends, then cohort, and the separation is clear.

The gradient solver also generally offers some benefit making a suggestion for just the next guess, but the cohort solver’s contribution is marginal at best.

Line chart comparing three irregular but increasing lines that represent the sequence of scores for guesses in a semantle game. The three lines are labelled friends, cohort, and gradient. Gradient finishes with fewest guesses, then friends, and cohort doesn't finish, but the differences are very minor.

These are of course only single instances of each scenario, and there is significant variation between runs. It’s been interesting to see this play out interactively, but a more comprehensive performance characterisation – with plenty of scope for understanding the influence of hyperparameters – may be in order.

Solver solo

The solvers can also play part or whole games solo (or with other players) in a live environment, using Selenium WebDriver to submit guesses and collect scores. The leading animation above is gradient-USE and a below is a faster game using cohort-word2vec.

Animation of a Semantle game from initial guess to completion

So long

And that’s it for now! We have multiple solver configurations that can play online by themselves or with other people. They demonstrate how people and machines can collaborate to each bring their own strengths to solving problems; people with creative strategies and machines with a relentless ability to crunch through possibilities. They don’t spoil the fun of solving Semantle yourself or with friends, but they do provide new ways to play and to gain insight into how to improve your own game.

Postscript: seeing in space

Through all this I’ve considered various 3D visualisations of search through a semantic space with hundreds of dimensions. I’ve settled on the version below, illustrating a search for target “habitat” from first guess “megawatt”.

An animated rotating 3D view of an semi-regular collection of points joined by lines into a sequence. Some points are labelled with words. Represents high-dimensional semantic search in 3D.

This visualisation format uses cylindrical coordinates, broken out in the figure below. The cylinder (x) axis is the projection of each guess to the line that connects the first guess to the target word. The cylindrical radius is the distance of each guess in embedding space from its projection on this line (cosine similarity seemed smoother than Euclidian distance here). The angle of rotation in cylindrical coordinates (theta) is the cumulative angle between the directions connecting guess n-1 to n and n to n+1. The result is an irregular helix expanding then contracting, all while twisting around the axis from first to lass guess.

Three line charts on a row, with common x-axis of guess number, showing semi-regular lines, representing the cylindrical coordinates of the 3D visualisation. The left chart is x-axis, increasing from 0 to 1, middle is radius, from 0 to ~1 and back to 0, and right is angle theta, increasing from 0 to ~11 radians.

Second Semantle Solver

In the post Sketching Semantle Solvers, I introduced two methods for solving Semantle word puzzles, but I only wrote up one. The second solver here is based the idea that the target word should appear in the intersection between the cohorts of possible targets generated by each guess.

Finding the semantle target through overlapping cohorts. Shows two intersecting rings of candidate words based on cosine similarity.

To recap, the first post:

  • introduced the sibling strategies side-by-side,
  • discussed designing for sympathetic sequences, so the solver can play along with humans, with somewhat explainable guesses, and
  • shared the source code and visualisations for the gradient descent solver.

Solution source

This post shares the source for the intersecting cohorts solver, including notebook, similarity model and solver class.

The solver is tested against the simple simulator for semantle scores from last time. Note that the word2vec model data for the simulator (and agent) is available at this word2vec download location.

Stylised visualisation of the search for a target word with intersecting  cohorts. Shows distributions of belief strength at each guess and strength and rank of target word

The solver has the following major features:

  1. A vocabulary, containing all the words that can be guessed,
  2. A semantic model, from which the agent can calculate the similarity of word pairs,
  3. The ability to generate cohorts of words from the vocabulary that are similar (in Semantle score) to a provided word (a guess), and
  4. An evolving strength of belief that each word in the vocabulary is the target.

In each step towards guessing the target, the solver does the following:

  1. Choose a word for the guess. The current choice is the word with the strongest likelihood of being the target, but it could equally be any other word from the solver’s vocabulary (which might help triangulate better), or it could be provided by a human player with their own suspicions.
  2. Score the guess. The Semantle simulator scores the guess.
  3. Generate a cohort. The guess and the score are used to generate a new cohort of words that would share the same score with the guess.
  4. Merge the cohort into the agent’s belief model. The score is added to the current belief strength for each word in the cohort, providing a proxy for likelihood for each word. The guess is also masked from further consideration.

Show of strength

The chart below shows how the belief strength (estimated likelihood) of the target word gradually approaches the maximum belief strength of any word, as the target (which remains unknown until the end) appears in more and more cohorts.

Intersecting cohorts solver. Line chart showing the belief strength of the target word at each guess in relation to the maximum belief strength of remaining words.

We can also visualise the belief strength across the whole vocabulary at each guess, and the path the target word takes in relation to these distributions, in terms of its absolute score and its rank relative to other words.

Chart showing the cohort solver belief strength across the whole vocabulary at each guess, and the path the target word takes in relation to these distributions, in terms of its absolute score and its rank relative to other words

Superior solution?

The cohort solver can be (de)tuned to almost any level of performance by adjusting the parameters precision and recall, which determine the tightness of the similarity band and completeness of results from the generated cohorts. The gradient descent solver has potential for tuning parameters, but I didn’t explore this much. To compare the two, we’d therefore need to consider configurations of each solver. For now, I’m pleased that the two distinct sketches solve to my satisfaction!

Sketching Semantle Solvers

Semantle is an online puzzle game in which you make a series of guesses to discover a secret word. Each guess is scored by how “near” it is to the secret target, providing guidance for subsequent guesses, but that’s all the help you get. Fewer guesses is a better result, but hard to achieve, as the majority of words are not “near” and there are many different ways to get nearer to the target.

You could spend many enjoyable hours trying to solve a puzzle like this, or you could devote that time to puzzling over how a machine might solve it for you…

Scoring system

Awareness of how the nearness score is calculated can inspire potential solutions. The score is based on a machine learning model of language; how frequently words appear in similar contexts. These models convert each word into a unique point in space (also known as an embedding) in such a way that similar words are literally near to one another in this space, and therefore the similarity score is higher for points that are nearer one another.

Diagram of a basic semantic embedding example. The words "dog" and "cat" are shown close together, while the word "antidisestablishmentariansim" is shown distant from both.

We can reproduce this similarity score ourselves with a list of English words and a trained machine learning model, even though these models use 100s of dimensions rather than two, as above. Semantle uses the word2vec model but there are also alternatives like USE. Comparing these results to the scores from a Semantle session could guide a machine’s guesses. We might consider this roughly equivalent to our own mental model of the nearness of any pair of words, which we could estimate if we were asked.

Sibling strategies

Two general solution strategies occurred to me to find the target word guided by similarity scores: intersecting cohorts and gradient descent.

Intersecting cohorts: the score for each guess defines a group of candidate words that could be the target (because they have the same similarity with the guessed word as the score calculated from the target). By making different guesses, we get different target cohorts with some common words. These cohort intersections allow us to narrow in on the words most like to be the target, and eventually guess it correctly.

Diagram showing two similarity cohorts. These form halos around the axis of guess direction, based on dot product similarity, and intersect in the direction of the target word.

Gradient descent: each guess gives a score, and we look at the difference between scores and where the guesses are located relative to each other to try to identify the “semantic direction” in which the score is improving most quickly. We make our next guess in that direction. This doesn’t always get us closer but eventually leads us to the target.

Diagram showing a number of nodes and gradient directions between nodes. One is highlighted showing the maximum gradient and direction of the next guess, which is a node close to the extension of the direction vector.

I think human players tend more towards gradient descent, especially when close to the target, but also use some form of intersecting cohorts to hypothesise potential directions when uncertain. For a machine, gradient descent requires locations in embedding space to be known, while intersecting cohorts only cares about similarity of pairs.

Sympathetic sequences

Semantle is open source and one could create a superhuman solver that takes unfair advantage of knowledge about the scoring system. For instance, 4 significant figures of similarity (as per semantle scores) allows for pretty tight cohorts. Additionally, perfectly recalling large cohorts of 10k similar words at each guess seems unrealistic for people.

I was aiming for something that produced results in roughly the same range as a human and that could also play alongside a human should they want a helpful suggestion. Based on limited experience, the human range seems to be – from exceptional to exasperated – about 20 to 200+ guesses.

This lead to some design intents:

  • that the solving agent capabilities were clearly separated from the Semantle scoring system (I would like to use a different semantic model for the agent in future)
  • that proposing the next guess and incorporating the results from a guess would be decoupled to allow the agent to play with others
  • that the agent capabilities could be [de]tuned if required to adjust performance relative to humans or make its behaviour more interpretable

Solution source

This post shares the source for the gradient descent solver and a simple simulator for semantle scores. Note that the word2vec model data for the simulator (and agent) is available at this word2vec download location.

I have also made a few iterations on the intersecting cohorts approach, which works but isn’t ready for publication.

Seeking the secret summit

The gradient descent (or ascent to a summit) approach works pretty well by just going to the most similar word and moving a random distance in the direction of the steepest known gradient. The nearest not previously guessed word to the resultant point is proposed as the next guess. You can see a gradual but irregular improvement in similarity as it searches.

Line chart of similarity score to target for each word in a sequence of guesses. The line moves upwards gradually but irregularly for most of the chart and shoots up at the end. The 46 guesses progress from thaw to gather.

In the embedding space, I overlaid a network (or graph) of “nodes” representing words and their similarity to the target, and “spokes” representing the direction between nodes and the gradient of similarity in that direction. This network is initialised with a handful of random guesses before the gradient descent begins in earnest. Below I’ve visualised the search in this space with respect to the basis – the top node and spoke with best gradient – of each guess.

Chart showing progession of basis of guessing the target word. The horizontal axis is current best guess. The vertical axis is current reference word. A line progresses in fewer hops horizontally and more hops vertically from bottom left to top right.

The best results are about 40 guesses and typically under 200, though may blow out on occasion. I haven’t really tried to optimise the search; as above, the first simple idea worked pretty well. To [de]tune or test the robustness of this solution, I’ve considered adding more noise to the search for the nearest word from the extrapolated point, or compromising the recall of nearby words, or substituting a different semantic model. These things might come in future. At this stage I just wanted to share a sketch of the solver rather than a settled solution.

Postscript: after publishing, I played with the search visualisation in an attempt to tell a more intuitive story (from literally to nobody).

Line chart showing the similarity of each of a sequence of 44 guesses to a semantle target. The line is quite irregular but trends up from first guess “literally” at bottom left to target “nobody” at top right. The chart is annotated with best guess at each stage and reference words for future guesses.

Stop the sibilants, s’il vous plaît

C’est suffit! I’m semantically sated. After that sublime string of subheadings, the seed of a supplementary Wordle spin-off sprouts: Alliteratle anyone?