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Writing a Conversational User Interface Library - Full Series

MiguelMJ
I'm a Computer Science student and programming is my passion.I love learning as much as I love teaching, sharing knowledge is a high human value!
・25 min read

For the last months, I've been writing this series on the development of JTASCHE (Java Text Adventure and Simple Chatbot Engine). This post is meant to merge all the chapters. I don't expect anyone to read it all... maybe someone will find a cool idea or some inspiration, but the real purpose to publish it is to unify this journal in a single file.

Table of contents

1. The idea [TOC]

One of the things that caught my attention before I started studying Computer Science were chatbots. I'd always loved the idea of speaking to machines, but the quality of real chatbots obviously wouldn't be up the incredible AIs of sci-fi movies.

When I learnt the two main approaches to chatbot-like applications used today, machine learning based and rule based, I knew I had the spirit but lacked the skills to follow the first one. Therefore, I did my research on the second one and found AIML.

Yet, as time passed, I started to become more and more interested in developing my own tool, rather than the chatbot itself. I wanted to make something at least as powerful as AIML and hopefully better.

After a year or two, between studies and other projects, I managed to finish the first version of TASCHE (link below), a library to design dialogue flows in JSON, a custom format for the patterns and a custom pseudolanguage to modify its internal state. It was not as great as my first-year-in-uni self would dream, but it worked and was definitely set on the right path.

As I was still learning during the process, it suffered a lot of transformations. It's enough to say that the first pattern parser was written from scratch in several thousand lines of code, before being replaced by a more legible Flex + Bison version. I wrote it in C++ because its my main language and I needed to focus on the structures and algorithms. Now, five years after the first draft, I've chosen Java to rewrite it and try to improve it in the process.

I'll keep this series to explain the internals of TASCHE and its evolution. I think my first-year-in-uni self will enjoy it.

2. The design [TOC]

Before we properly start to code, we must define the requisites of the project to have a general understanding of what we have to implement and how we plan to do it.

General description

The Conversational Interface Library will provide the user with a Conversational User Interface (CUI from now) class. A CUI must be able to load a dialogue flow specified by the user and answer their input according to it, modifying its internal state if it's necessary. It can be thought of as an automaton.

Requisites

Input

When we think about user input, we have to always assume that we won't consider all the possibilities. Anyways, we want to consider as many as possible in the shortest specification we can.

The most powerful tool we have to do this are regular expressions. But, as regular expressions can sometimes be a little too complicated, we will think about creating a simpler format, easier for the user, that translates underneath to a regular expression.

Output

If we want a chatbot to feel as natural as possible, diversity of answers is a must. For this we will not only use a list of possible expressions to randomly choose from, but we will also group many different answers with little variations in the same expression.

Again, we can use regular expressions to generate strings. This is not their usual purpose, but there are libraries that allow as to do it.

Internal state

The internal state of the chatbot creates the context of the conversation, so for the same input, different output comes depending on what's been said earlier.

The most flexible and powerful way to contain and modify the internal state is to use an embedded scripting language.

Dialogue flow format

The dialogue flow then must associate input and state with a list of possible answers and state modifications. The ideal format would be one legible, without redundant information (except when it's for clarity) and customizable.

We will design a structure to contain the proper dialogue flow and use JSON to store it.

Synopsis

From all we've said, the following specifications are extracted:

We will use

  • regular expressions for input matching.

  • regular expressions for output generation.

  • optional simplification of regular expressions for the user.

  • scripting language for internal state representation and modification.

  • custom data structure to associate input, state and output.

  • JSON to store such structure.

The first implementation I did in C++ (see Part 1 of this series) used its own version, built from scratch, of most of these features. But this time I'll find out what Java libraries I can use for the same purpose, because once you've reinvented the wheel in order to learn (which is a noble cause), you should use professionally built, tested and maintained wheels. That will reduce the effort you need to build, test and maintain your project.

3. Regular Expressions for I/O [TOC]

In the last post we defined the requisites of the project. I started in order and began with the input and output based on regular expressions.

Regular expressions in Java

Regular expressions are supported in Java with the package java.util.regex. Its usage is pretty straightforward for the pattern matching, but does not support string generation.

As usual, someone had already asked what I needed to know in stackoverflow, and thus I found the library Generex, a Java library for generating String from a regular expression.

Setting up the project

Almost always I prefer to work from the terminal. I strongly believe that being able to manage your code without an IDE gives you better understanding of the underlying processes of compiling and debugging. Still, I am not going to refuse the facility of an IDE if what I care about is that the project moves forward.

  • At first, I tried to build Generex from source, but I'm not familiar with this process in Java and it looked like more effort than it was worth, so I decided to go with Maven.

  • I tried to use Maven from the command line. I read some tutorials and got a Hello World compiled, but again I had problems using the dependencies for the real project.

  • What I had to do was clear; I didn't switch from C++ to Java to complicate my life, so I launched Eclipse, imported the Maven project(1)(2) and had Generex up and running in seconds.

A custom Pattern class

Once with my work environment ready, I created a Pattern class. Initially I debated whether it was necessary to make a unified class for the input and output patterns, instead of a separate one for each, but I came to the conclusion that for now I needed simplicity and in the end there was not a big conceptual difference.

This class contained a java.util.regex.Pattern for the matching and a Generex for the generation. I was worried I was using more memory than necesary ,given that I won't be using them at the same time, but again, I followed this quote whose author I never remember:

Is easier to optimize clean code than to clean optimized code.

Testing

I have not used JUnit before, so I was glad to discover it's not a big deal. I prepared a single test to check that a simple Pattern could generate different strings, and match them all as true.

The regular expression used for the test is:

(Hi|Hello), how are you( today)?\?

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and everything went well, as the output shows ([OK] means that the pattern matched the generated string).

Generated: Hi, how are you today?[OK]
Generated: Hello, how are you?[OK]
Generated: Hi, how are you today?[OK]
Generated: Hello, how are you?[OK]
Generated: Hi, how are you?[OK]
Generated: Hi, how are you today?[OK]
Generated: Hello, how are you today?[OK]
Generated: Hi, how are you today?[OK]
Generated: Hello, how are you?[OK]
Generated: Hello, how are you?[OK]

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Conclusion

This was still the easy part and I didn't really expect the test to fail, but this kind of motivation is important, even in the beginning.

I decided to name this project JTASCHE, to make the difference with TASCHE. The code is available on GitHub.

4. Scripting Language for Inner State [TOC]

In the last post we made Pattern, a class to recognize input and produce output. Now we'll make another one that let us interact with the inner state of the CUI.

As we decided during the design, we will contain and modify the inner state via an embedded scripting language. Java supports several scripting languages and for this project we'll be using Jython.

Jython

As its official page says, Jython is a Java implementation of Python that combines expressive power with clarity. Its advantages are that it's super easy to embed in Java and the simplicity of the Python language. The main downside is that the last Python supported version is the 2.7, which is not currently mantained. As this is a hobby project, I won't take that on count, but in a different case I would probably consider another option (e.g. I'd like to embed Lua in the original TASCHE).

Embed it to the project

The normal version of Jython requires it installed in your machine, but there is a stand-alone version which runs on its own and can be added as a simple Maven dependency (as we did with Generex in the last part). We'll be using that one.

Script class

In our library, there are two main purposes for the Script class:

  1. Check a condition against the inner state.

  2. Modify the inner state.

So the structure of this class is pretty straightforward. We have:

  • A static reference to the PythonInterpreter that contains the inner state.

  • A String that contains the code of the script.

  • A function to evaluate it as a boolean (with the Jython __nonzero__ function).

  • A function to simply execute the code.

Testing

// A SUCCESSFUL TEST
Script[] scripts = new Script[10];
Script.pyMachine.exec("a = 5; b=3; c='hola'");
// this should eval true
scripts[0] = new Script("a == 5");
scripts[1] = new Script("b ==3");
scripts[2] = new Script("c[b] == 'a'");
scripts[3] = new Script("'0'");
scripts[4] = new Script("1");
// this should eval false
scripts[5] = new Script("a==b");
scripts[6] = new Script("h=4;False");
scripts[7] = new Script("c[0]=='o'");
scripts[8] = new Script("0");
scripts[9] = new Script("''");

boolean ok = true; int i=0;
for(Script s: scripts) {
    boolean ev = s.evaluate();
    ok &= i++ < 5 == ev;
}

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As this class is mainly a wrapper of Jython's PyCode, there was little to test but the basic functionality. The only thing worth mentioning is that, as intuitive as it may sound, the state of the PythonInterpreter object persists between different Scripts executions and evaluations.

Note that if, in the future, we wanted to have different Conversational Interfaces running with different inner states (be it sequentially or concurrently), we would have to set the static instance before executing/evaluating any script.

Conclusion

Now with our Pattern and Script classes we have the basic building blocks to define a structure that associates input and conditions to output and state changes. From now we won't rely much more in third-party libraries (except Gson, which I'll explain).

After we have this structure, we will be able to write dialogue flow examples to test some new features like patterns modifying the inner state and possibly the regex simplification we planned during the design.

Don't forget to check the repository for the code!

5. Structures [TOC]

The classes we've got right now are Pattern, for matching input and producing output, and Script for checking and modifying the inner state of the CUI. With these two, we want to make a structure that:

  1. Receives user input.
  2. Matches it against a pattern.
  3. Checks a condition in the inner state.
  4. If the input matches and the condition is satisfied, it either:
  • a) Produces some output and executes a change in the state.
  • b) Processes the input further until it gets to produce an output or discard the response.

Some notation

  • We will call question to the user input, that the Response tries to match.
  • Given a question, a Response is valid when the question matches the input pattern and the condition is satisfied.

The `Response` class

We'll make a base Response class, which performs the first three steps and SimpleResponse and RecursiveResponse, that derive from it and implement an answer function, respectively for a options a) and b).

Response hierarchy

Note that the return type of the answer function is an Optional, because if the question is not valid, the function should not return anything.

Valid responses

public boolean isValid(String question) {
  return (input == null     || input.matches(question)) &&
         (condition == null || condition.evaluate());
}

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We will use null input patterns for responses that should adapt to any question and null conditions for responses that should not depend on the inner state.

Simple response

The algorithm that SimpleResponse uses to answer a question is:

public Optional<String> answer(String question) {
    Optional<String> ans = Optional.empty();
    if(isValid(question)){
        ans = Optional.of(output.generate());
        if(execute != null) execute.execute();
    }
    return ans;
}

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The execute script doesn't need to be present, but the output pattern can't be null, as something needs to be returned, even if it's an empty string.

Recursive Response

The algorithm used by a RecursiveResponse, instead, is:

public Optional<String> answer(String question) {
    Optional <String> ans = Optional.empty();
    if(isValid(question)) {
        if(new_question != null) {
            question = new_question;
        }
        for(Response response : responses) {
            ans = response.answer(question);
            if(ans.isPresent()) break;
        }
    }
    return ans;
}

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In this case, the first sub-response able to answer the question will be the only one returned. This could be tweaked later, to enable recursive responses that append all possible answers, but for now we'll leave it this way.

The `Module` class

We may want a default value for certain variables the first time we check a condition or define some useful functions to avoid repeating code. The Module class will be used to group a set of responses that can be related or use the same variables of the inner state, and also include a initialization script to run before any of its Responses is used.

Module class

The answer method behaves the same way as the one from RecursiveResponse.

The `CUI` class

At last, we can create the CUI class, which is no more than a collection of Modules and a PythonInterpreter to set the static reference of the Script, which we explained in the last part.

CUI class

The answer function in this class doesn't return a Optional because defaults any response to an empty string, and appends the result of calling answer on every one of its modules when they don't return an empty Optional.

Conclusion

Now we have the structures and the logic necessary for the basic functionality of our library! The following step to take will be to implement the serialization and deserialization of these structures, which will be done to a JSON format via the GSON library.

The real code is on GitHub, if you want to check it and star the project if you like it!

6. Serialization of the dialogue flow [TOC]

In the last post we defined the structures which contain the logic and data for the basic behaviour of a Conversational User Interface, which were SimpleResponse, RecursiveResponse, Module and CUI. But unless we want to hard code their content in every application, we need to serialize and deserialize them.

GSON

We are going to store our data in JSON format, so we'll make use of the GSON a Java serialization/deserialization library to convert Java Objects into JSON and back, devolped by Google. As we did before with Generex and Jython, we just have to add the dependency to the pom.xml file of our Maven project and it will be ready to use.

GSON is a flexible and powerful library that could take more than one post to explain. Honestly, I didn't dive much into it, so I'm pretty sure there are better ways to do what I'm about to explain, but my task was not that complicated, so this solution is still flexible and open to future adaptations.

Intermediate classes for serialization

Due to their complexity, our Response and Module classes can't be serialized directly by GSON, so the simplest way I came up with to deal with that was to make a serializable version of each one (SerializableResponse and SerializableModule) as an intermediary.

`SerializableResponse`

This class just holds the String version of all possible attributes from each child of Response, which are:

class SerializableResponse{
  public String input; // both
  public String output; // SimpleResponse
  public String condition; // both
  public String execute; // SimpleResponse
  public String new_question; // RecursiveResponse
  public List<SerializableResponse> responses; // RecursiveResponse

  public Response getResponse(){...}
}

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Java to JSON

The Response class needs a new abstract function SerializableResponse serializable() that will be implemented for each child and only has to fill each attribute of the serializable calling toString().

Note that:

  • In the case of the Scripts, PyCode from Jython doesn't keep the code string, so we have to modify our class to do it in order to return it in its toString function.

  • In the RecursiveResponse attribute responses this is a recursive call.

Now to serialize a Response we only need to do:

jsonString = gson.toJson(myResponse.serializable());

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JSON to Java

Now we use the SerializableResponse kind of like a factory, with a function Response getResponse(). The only thing we have to do to discern wehter to return a SimpleResponse or a RecursiveResponse is:

// SerializableResponse getResponse
if (this.output != null){ // SimpleResponse (we allow this.execute to be null)
  // build a SimpleResponse with the string attributes
  // and return it
}else if(this.responses != null){ // RecursiveResponse (we allow new_question to be null)
  // build a RecursiveResponse with the string attributes
  // and return it
}else{
  // error
}

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And so, to deserialize a Response we only have to:

Response myResponse = gson(jsonString ,SerializableResponse.class).getResponse();

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`SerializableModule`

As you may be already expecting, this class is just a list of SerializableResponses and a single additional String for the initialization script.

class SerializableModule{
  public String init;
  public List<SerializableResponse> responses;
}

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And the remaining logic to serialize and deserialize is similar to the explained previously.

Load and save a `CUI`

With the logic to convert Modules to JSON and back, the function to load and save modules would take just a few lines. The only thing we still cannot load nor store yet would be the inner state, so for now our conversational applications won't keep any memory between sessions.

Let's see a basic example

{
"init":"greeted=False",
"responses":[{
          "input":"(hello|hi)!*",
          "responses":[{
                  "condition":"not greeted",
                  "output":"Hi(, traveler)?",
                  "execute":"greeted = True"
              },
              {
                  "output":"Hello(, again|there)"
              }]
          }]
}

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Possible exchange:

User: hi!!
Bot: Hi, traveler
User: hello
Bot: Hello there
user: hello!!!
Bot: Hello, again

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Conclusion

Finally we have covered what's necessary to define functional dialogue flows and test new features. From now on, all we'll do is extend what we have, because as the example shows, the scope of what this library offers is very limited compared to what we can still make.

The next step to take is to implement variables, so we can access and temporally modify the inner state directly from the Pattern class, in order to interpret the user input more intelligently. For this, we I will be explaining more advanced features of the regular expressions in Java.

You can check the code in GitHub, give it a star if you like it and see the documentation in my new website.

7. Variables and Placeholders [TOC]

We already have a working chatbot engine, but as we saw in the example of the last post, it's not very powerful. Now we are going to link the pattern matching and the inner state so we can make more specific checks on the user's input.

To do this we will have to make some preprocessing on the regular expressions we use, and even regenerate them several times during a session. We will be making really heavy use of regular expressions, so be prepared.

Note: In this post the word pattern can refer to different things, so before anything I want to make clear what it means depending on the format I use:

  • Pattern, with capital P, refers to our custom class Pattern, that we defined in Part 3.

  • java.util.regex.Pattern refers to the native class of Java.

  • pattern refers to the java.util.regex.Pattern contained as an attribute in our custom Pattern class.

Regex Named Capturing Groups in Java

Both for the preprocessing and for the inner state interaction, we need to handle this concept at least in a basic level. I won't dive much more than needed in it, so here we go.

In a java.util.regex.Matcher you can capture a specific part of your string using a regular expression, and furthermore, name it. The syntax for it, inside the regex, is the following:

(?<name>subregex)

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so the following code

String regex = "I am (?<age>[0-9]+) years old";
String str = "I am 23 years old"
Matcher m = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile(regex).matcher(str);
if(m.matches())
    System.out.println(m.group("age"));

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will output:

23

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Backreferencing

You can also use capturing groups in the replace function, to replace the content of the string recycling the very match. To do this, you must use ${identifier} in the replace string:

String regex = "I (?<word>[a-zA-Z]+)";
String str = "I write, I code, I learn";
Matcher m = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile(regex).matcher(str);
String result = m.repaceAll("We ${word}");
System.out.println(result);

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This code outputs:

We write, We code, We learn

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Now we are ready to face the new features of our library.

Variables and placeholders

This is the way we will make use of these terms when talking of Patterns:

  • Variable: They are read-only parts of the Pattern, that match/generate the correspondent value of the inner state. We will note them in our Patterns with a dollar sign: $identifier , where the identifier follows the lexical rules of the identifiers in C-families - Don't mistake this with the ${identifier} I mentioned before, which works for the replace functions of the java Matcher, this is a construct of our own. The need of Pattern regeneration comes from these, because they change the strings recognized and generated.

Example: If we had in our inner state a variable flavour = coffee, then the Pattern I like $flavour would only match/generate I like coffee.

  • Placeholder: They are the parts of the pattern that store the matched value in the inner state. As you can imagine, we'll use the capturing groups for them.

Example: If the CUI uses this response

  {
   "input":"my name is (?<name>[a-Az-Z])",
   "output":"hello $name!"
  }

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then the response to my name is Miguel will be hello Miguel!

Implementation

The former implementation of Pattern we just had a java.util.regex.Pattern pattern and a Generex generator. Now, we may want to regenerate them before its use; let's see what are the conditions:

  • For output generation, the placeholders will be trated as variables (their difference is only notable when matching input).

  • This means that the pattern must be regenerated if the Pattern contains variables. The generator, furthermore, must be regenerated if the Pattern contains variables or placeholders.

  • We need to add to our Pattern class the attributes List<String> variables, List<String> placeholders, String inputTemplate and String outputTemplate. These last two will be used for regeneration.

Preprocessing the string to build a Pattern - I used the regex to preprocess the regex

Now, instead of building the pattern and the generator directly from the regex string (here we'll call it str), we have to:

  1. Find the placeholders
   String phPattStr = "\\(\\?<(?<id>[^>]*)>\\([^)]*\\)[^)]*\\)";
   java.util.regex.Pattern phPatt = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile(phPattStr);

   Matcher phFinder = phPatt.matcher(str);
   while(phFinder.find()) {
       placeholders.add(phFinder.group("id"));
   }

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  1. Find the variables
   String varPattStr = "\\\\\\$(?<id>[a-zA-Z][a-zA-Z0-9]*])";
   java.util.regex.Pattern varPatt = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile(varPattStr);

   Matcher varFinder = varPatt.matcher(str);
   while(varFinder.find()) {
       variables.add(varFinder.group("id"));
   }

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  1. Set the templates for regeneration (remember that placeholders behave like variables in the output)
   outputTemplate = phFinder.replaceAll("\\\\\\$${id}");
   inputTemplate = str;

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  1. Initialize the pattern and generator in case they won't be needing regeneration:
   if(variables.isEmpty()) {
       pattern = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile(inputTemplate);
       if(placeholders.isEmpty()) {
           generator = new Generex(outputTemplate);
       }
   }

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Pattern regeneration - Variable replacement

First of all, we'll make a static class called RegexAdapter (that we'll extend in the following chapter) which, for now, will contain a single function replaceVariables:

public static String replaceVars(String expr) {
    String varPattStr = "\\\\\\$(?<id>[a-zA-Z][a-zA-Z0-9]*])";
    java.util.regex.Pattern varPatt = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile(varPattStr);
    Matcher matcher = varPatt.matcher(expr);
    while(matcher.find()) {
        PyObject pyValue = Script.pyMachine.get(matcher.group(1));
        String value = pyValue == null? "" : pyValue.asString();
        expr = matcher.replaceFirst(value);
        matcher.reset(expr);
    }

    return expr;
}

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Here we used the same regular expression as before to build varPatt. We could store it in a final static attribute in the RegexAdapter to reuse it, instead of rewrite it each time.

In Matching

We have to make two main changes in the matching function:

  1. Now we have to check if we use the pattern or a new one we generate from the inputTemplate:
   java.util.regex.Pattern localPatt;
   if(pattern != null){
       localPatt = pattern;
   }else {
       String recognizerStr = RegexAdapter.remplaceVars(inputTemplate);
       localPatt = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile(recognizerStr);
   }

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  1. Then, when it matches, update inner state if the pattern contains placeholders:
   java.util.regex.Matcher matcher = localPatt.matcher(str);
   boolean match = matcher.matches();
   if(match) 
       for(String ph: placeholders) {
           String value = matcher.group(ph);
           if(!ph.isEmpty())
               Script.pyMachine.set(ph, value);
       }

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In Generation

In the generation function there is only a change needed, as we don't have to modify the inner state.

  1. We have to check if we use the generator or a new one we generate from the outputTemplate:
   Generex localGen;
   if(generator != null) {
       localGen = generator;
   }else{
       String generatorStr = RegexAdapter.remplaceVars(outputTemplate);
       localGen = new Generex(generatorStr);
   }

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Conclusion

That's it, we have implemented variables in our chatbot engine. It is beginning to be obvious that the input and output patterns should be separated in different classes. Anyways, if I do those changes, I won't document them here.

There is something we must take on count when using placeholders: the modification of the inner state occurs independently of the validity of the response it belongs to. This means that a response could have an invalid condition, but the mere check of the input could modify the inner state. For now we have to rely on the common sense of the user to make an intelligent use of variables and that is not a very good idea. We will have to implement a scoping system for this modifications sometime in the future .

Anyways, the next chapter will be a special one. Even though it will be a part of this series, I intend it to be readable by its own. We will be extending the class RegexAdapter, to offer to the user the option to use normal regular expressions or a version we'll craft to simplify the most common uses.

8. Adapted Regular Expressions [TOC]

The regular expressions that we will use in our library are mostly to process controlled natural language, so we are going to make an adapted version of them. We will have to give up some of the potential of regular expressions to gain usability for the most common cases in our library.

Note: We are going to use regular expressions to process regular expressions, so they can get a little confusing. You may want to check out my post on Correctly escaping regular expressions

Features

The Adapted Expressions (this is how I will be calling this adapted version of regular expressions) have the following features and syntax:

  • Optional parts: They will be enclosed between squared brackets [] and may be omitted. one two[ three] recognizes both one two and one two three.

  • Eligible parts: They will be enclosed between parenthesis and separated by bars, and may be interchanged. (one|two|three) will recognize one, two or three

  • Word placeholder: They are used to recognize one or more words and store them in the inner state. The syntax is @>id[quant] for [quant] words stored in a group named id. [quant] can be any of the usual quantifiers of regular expressions in Java: this is *,+, {n} or {min,max}. For example, You can call me @>fullname{1,3} will recognize You can call me Jon Doe or any other name with one word minimum and three maximum.

  • Number placeholder: They are used to recognize one or more numbers and store them in the inner state. The syntax is #>id[quant], with a similar behavior to the word placeholders.

  • Variables: They are used to represent the content of a variable of the inner state. The syntax is $id.

Note: Placeholders and variables refer to the same concepts explained in the last post.

Here's a table with the equivalences:

Adapted Expression Regular Expression
[text] (text)?
(a|b|c) (a|b|c)
@>id (?<id>\w+ ?)
@>id{n} (?<id>(\w+ ?){n})
#>id (?<id>\d+ ?)
#>id{n} (?<id>(\d+ ?){n})
$id $id

Note: $id variables doesn't belong to Regular Expressions, but to the extension we made in the last post.

RegexAdapter class

In the previous we created this class to make a function to replace the variable names with the associated content in the inner state. Now we will add a new function to adapt the string of a Adapted Expression to a Regular Expression. It is very important to have clear that the reserved characters of the Adapted Expressions are not the same as in the Regular Expressions. For this reason, the first step of this transformation is to escape the characters with special meaning in a Regular Expression that are present in our Adapted Expression. This means that we have to assume that those characters are going to be escaped when we process them, and change that if necessary.

We are going to need the definition of certain constants.

// The characters reserved in the Regular Expressions for which we don't want a
// special meaning
final static private char[] reserved = {'?', '^', '.', '$', '[', ']'};
// The strings used to  build the regex that contain common concepts in our expressions
final static private String id = "[a-zA-Z_]\\w*";
final static private String num = "\\d+";
final static private String print = "\\\\w+";
final static private String quant = "\\{\\d+,\\d*\\}|\\+|\\*";
// The regular expressions that we will use to make the transformation
final static private java.util.regex.Pattern optional_open
    = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile("\\\\\\[");
final static private java.util.regex.Pattern optional_close
    = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile("\\\\\\]");
final static private java.util.regex.Pattern alphaplaceholder 
    = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile("\\@>(?<id>"+id+")(?<quant>"+quant+")?");
final static private java.util.regex.Pattern numplaceholder 
    = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile("\\#>(?<id>"+id+")(?<quant>"+quant+")?");
final static public java.util.regex.Pattern variable 
    = java.util.regex.Pattern.compile("\\\\\\$(?<id>"+id+")");

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With this constants defined, we can define the function to escape the Regular Expressions:

static private String quoteRegex(String regex){
    for(char ch: reserved){
        regex = regex.replaceAll("\\"+ch, Matcher.quoteReplacement("\\"+ch));
    }
    return regex;
}

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And finally we can define the function to make the translation using replacing with backreferencing:

static public String adapt(String expr){
    Matcher matcher;
    matcher = optional_open.matcher(expr);
    expr = matcher.replaceAll("(");
    matcher = optional_close.matcher(expr);
    expr = matcher.replaceAll(")?");
    matcher = alphaplaceholder.matcher(expr);
    expr = matcher.replaceAll("(?<${id}>("+print+" ?)${quant})");
    matcher = numplaceholder.matcher(expr);
    expr = matcher.replaceAll("(?<${id}>("+num+" ?)${quant})");
    return expr;
}

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Example

Now, instead of writing a response like this:

{
    "input": "Remind((er| me)? to)? (?<action>(\w ?)+) on (?<day>\w+)",
    "output": "I will you to $action on $day"
}

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We can write it like this:

{
    "input": "Remind[[er| me] to] @>action+ on @>day",
    "output": "I will remind you to $action on $day"
}

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Conclusion and revision

Now we could add an option on each module or even each response that lets the user choose to either use a Regular Expression or an Adapted Expression, and use this function to transform these to those.

Since we had our first functional version, we have added_

  • The possibility to read/write the inner state during the input matching and output generation.

  • A simplified yet extensible version of the regular expressions for the user.

This leaves us with the following issues:

  • We still have to make a scoping system to control the modifications made during a match that was finally not successful.

  • Add some options to the Pattern deserialization, to choose between Regular or Adapted expressions.

As those are tweaks, more than essential features, I will document them in a post about the final tweaks to the library. For now, the next post will be about adding knowledge to our chatbots. We will add a feature to let the user to specify sets of words under concept categories.

Closing the project [TOC]

That final post didn't came out. I didn't have the time to program the last part and I honestly didn't want to dedicate that much energy to a side project, specially one that is already effectively functional and is intended for other hobby projects.

This project has been fun. If you have read all, I hope you have extracted some value... if not, I can't blame you. For me, this was what I needed to start blogging and an excuse to revisit an old ambition. If I ever come back to work with JTASCHE, I highly doubt I'll write about it, but who knows.

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