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The Reader, also known as Open-Domain QA systems in Machine Learning speak, is the core component that enables Haystack to find the answers that you need. Haystack’s Readers are:

  • built on the latest transformer based language models

  • strong in their grasp of semantics

  • sensitive to syntactic structure

  • state-of-the-art in QA tasks like SQuAD and Natural Questions

While these models can work on CPU, it is recommended that they are run using GPUs to keep query times low.

Choosing the Right Model

In Haystack, you can start using pretrained QA models simply by providing its HuggingFace Model Hub name to the Reader. The loading of model weights is handled by Haystack, and you have the option of using the QA pipeline from deepset FARM or HuggingFace Transformers (see FARM vs Transformers for details).

Currently, there are a lot of different models out there and it can be rather overwhelming trying to pick the one that fits your use case. To get you started, we have a few recommendations for you to try out.


All-rounder: In the class of base sized models trained on SQuAD, RoBERTa has shown better performance than BERT and can be capably handled by any machine equipped with a single NVidia V100 GPU. We recommend this as the starting point for anyone wanting to create a performant and computationally reasonable instance of Haystack.

Built for Speed: If speed and GPU memory are more of a priority to you than accuracy, you should try the MiniLM model. It is a smaller model that is trained to mimic larger models through the distillation process, and it outperforms the BERT base on SQuAD even though it is about 40% smaller.

State of the Art Accuracy: For most, ALBERT XXL will be too large to feasibly work with. But if performance is your sole concern, and you have the computational resources, you might like to try ALBERT XXL which has set SoTA performance on SQuAD 2.0.

Confidence Scores

When printing the full results of a Reader, you will see that each prediction is accompanied by a value in the range of 0 to 1 reflecting the model's confidence in that prediction

In the output of print_answers(), you will find the model confidence in dictionary key called confidence.

from haystack.utils import print_answers
print_answers(prediction, details="all")
'answers': [
{ 'answer': 'Eddard',
'context': 's Nymeria after a legendary warrior queen. '
'She travels with her father, Eddard, to '
"King's Landing when he is made Hand of the "
'King. Before she leaves,',
'confidence': 0.9899835586547852,

In order to align this probability score with the model's accuracy, finetuning needs to be performed on a specific dataset. To this end, the reader has a method calibrate_confidence_scores(document_store, device, label_index, doc_index, label_origin). The parameters of this method are the same as for the eval() method because the calibration of confidence scores is performed on a dataset that comes with gold labels. The calibration calls the eval() method internally and therefore needs a DocumentStore containing labeled questions and evaluation documents.

Have a look at this FARM tutorial to see how to compare calibrated confidence scores with uncalibrated confidence scores within FARM. Note that a finetuned confidence score is specific to the domain that it is finetuned on. There is no guarantee that this performance can transfer to a new domain.

Having a confidence score is particularly useful in cases where you need Haystack to work with a certain accuracy threshold. Many of our users have built systems where predictions below a certain confidence value are routed on to a fallback system.

Deeper Dive: FARM vs Transformers

Apart from the model weights, Haystack Readers contain all the components found in end-to-end open domain QA systems. This includes tokenization, embedding computation, span prediction and candidate aggregation. While the handling of model weights is the same between the FARM and Transformers libraries, their QA pipelines differ in some ways. The major points are:

  • The TransformersReader will sometimes predict the same span twice while duplicates are removed in the FARMReader

  • The FARMReader currently uses the tokenizers from the HuggingFace Transformers library while the TransformersReader uses the tokenizers from the HuggingFace Tokenizers library

  • Start and end logits are normalized per passage and multiplied in the TransformersReader while they are summed and not normalised in the FARMReader

If you’re interested in the finer details of these points, have a look at this GitHub comment.

We see value in maintaining both kinds of Readers since Transformers is a very familiar library to many of Haystack’s users but we at deepset can more easily update and optimise the FARM pipeline for speed and performance.

Haystack also has a close integration with FARM which means that you can further fine-tune your Readers on labelled data using a FARMReader. See our tutorials for an end-to-end example or below for a shortened example.

from haystack.reader import FARMReader
# Initialise Reader
model = "deepset/roberta-base-squad2"
reader = FARMReader(model)
# Perform finetuning
train_data = "PATH/TO_YOUR/TRAIN_DATA"
train_filename = "train.json"
save_dir = "finetuned_model"
reader.train(train_data, train_filename, save_dir=save_dir)
# Load
finetuned_reader = FARMReader(save_dir)

Deeper Dive: From Language Model to Haystack Reader

Language models form the core of most modern NLP systems and that includes the Readers in Haystack. They build a general understanding of language when performing training tasks such as Masked Language Modeling or Replaced Token Detection on large amounts of text. Well trained language models capture the word distribution in one or more languages but more importantly, convert input text into a set of word vectors that capture elements of syntax and semantics.

In order to convert a language model into a Reader model, it needs first to be trained on a Question Answering dataset. To do so requires the addition of a question answering prediction head on top of the language model. The task can be thought of as a token classification task where every input token is assigned a probability of being either the start or end token of the correct answer. In cases where the answer is not contained within the passage, the prediction head is also expected to return a no_answer prediction.

Since language models are limited in the number of tokens which they can process in a single forward pass, a sliding window mechanism is implemented to handle variable length documents. This functions by slicing the document into overlapping passages of (approximately) max_seq_length that are each offset by doc_stride number of tokens. These can be set when the Reader is initialized.

Predictions are made on each individual passage and the process of aggregation picks the best candidates across all passages. If you’d like to learn more about what is happening behind the scenes, have a look at this article.