Getting Started with Question Answering (Q&A) using BERT

November 24, 2021

This tutorial will cover how to build a Question-Answering web application using Googles BERT model.


To follow allow with this tutorial, the reader will need to be familiar with:

Table of contents

What is BERT

Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) is a natural language processing model that uses transformers to accomplish a wide variety of NLP tasks. Some of the tasks where this model performs well include Question Answering, Natural Language Inference, and Named Entity Recognition.

Please refer to this article to learn more about BERT and how it compares to other natural language processing models such as GPT-3. This model was originally presented by Jacob Devlin and his research team at Google in 2018.

How to install the BERT model and import its dependencies

We will be using the pre-built BERT model from TensorFlow.js for this build. Pre-trained models make it easy to get started with huge models without getting involved with much setup and training.

We will be installing three packages. @tensorflow/tfjs to install the tensorflow.js library, @tensorflow-models/qna to download the question-answering model, and react-loader-spinner to give us a nice loading interface as our BERT model is being downloaded. It is quite a large model. Thus, a nice loading interface would come in handy.

npm i @tensorflow/tfjs @tensorflow-models/qna react-loader-spinner

After a successful installation, you can start up the react app to see if everything is okay. We start it using the npm start command as shown below:

npm start

If you see a “Hello World!” on the screen, we are good to go. This means that the app is functioning well. You can stop the app on the terminal by pressing CTRL+C simultaneously. We can now go ahead and import the required dependencies.

import * as tf from "@tensorflow/tfjs";
import * as qna from "@tensorflow-models/qna";
import "react-loader-spinner/dist/loader/css/react-spinner-loader.css";
import Loader from "react-loader-spinner";
import { Fragment } from 'react';

Our first import allows us to refer to the tensorflow.js library in our code as tf. The second import allows us to refer to the BERT model inside our code as qna. The third and fourth import imports the css style for our loader that we mentioned above. Lastly, we’ve imported Fragment, which allows us to return multiple elements without adding extra nodes to the DOM.

The next step involves setting up our references and state hooks. Hooks tend to create a symbolic link to various elements. By default, the React library imports the following hooks; useRef, useEffect, and useState.

You can see it at the top on the App.js file. useState allows us to work with states within our react app. It will be used to store our questions and passage. For a detailed explanation about hooks and references in React, please refer to this documentation.

  const passageRef = useRef(null); 
  const questionRef = useRef(null);
  const [answer, setAnswer] = useState(); 
  const [model, setModel] = useState(null); 

We’ve set up two references and state hooks.

Loading the tensorflow model

const loadModel = async ()=>{
    const loadedModel = await qna.load()
    console.log('Model loaded successfully!')

The code above goes ahead and loads our qna model. We’ve written a new function, made it asynchronous, and named it loadModel. Inside that function, we’ve created a new variable known as loadedModel, and then we await our qna model to load.

This is going to load the question-answering model into our app. Eventually, we should see Model loaded successfully to our console if our model loads successfully.

To run that function, we can go ahead and write the following code:

useEffect(()=>{loadModel()}, [])

The [] square brackets tell us how many times we want the model to load. In our case, only once. We don’t want the model to load every time as it’s too big. So the square brackets tell it to run only once using the useEffect hook.

At this point, you can try and re-start your react app to see whether the app starts and loads the model successfully. Please give it some time to load. You’ll see the Model loaded successfully! on the console log if everything is okay. You can now close the app.

Let’s now define a function that allows us to ask questions to the model. After setting up this function, we’ll hook it up to our user interface.

const questionAnswer = async (e) =>{
    if (e.which === 13 && model !== null ){
      console.log('Successfully submitted a question')
      const passage = passageRef.current.value
      const question = questionRef.current.value

      const answers = await model.findAnswers(question, passage)


Now that our questionAnswer function is done. We’ve made the function asynchronous as we’ll have to “await” our model to respond with our answers. The line of code (e.which === 13 && model !== null ) checks whether a user has pressed the Enter button on our keyboard to submit a question. It also makes sure that our model is loaded before submitting the question.

The variables passage, and question grab the passage and question values respectively to be able to go ahead and ask that question. Please remember that our passage and question are hooked up to passageRef and questionRef to our references. We then pass our passage and question to our model so that it can find answers. These answers are stored in a variable known as answers. We then push these answers into the setAnswer state.

Let’s now go ahead and create our user interface so that all these codes can make sense and see the entire flow of our application.

Creating an interface to capture the questions and answers

 return (
    <div className="App">
      <header className="App-header">
        {model ==null ? 
            <div>The model is loading</div>      
            <textarea ref={passageRef} rows="30" cols="100"></textarea>
            Ask a Question
            <input ref={questionRef} onKeyPress={questionAnswer} size="80"></input>
            <br /> 
            {answer ?, idx) =><div><b>Answer {idx+1} - </b> {ans.text} ({Math.floor(ans.score*100)/100})</div>) : ""}

That’s our user interface code written in full. Quite a lot of code there. Let me explain.

First, we are checking if our model has loaded using model ==null ?. If the model is loading, we display a div with the string, The model is loading. We then use our Loader function which we imported earlier to display a beautiful loader interface.

You can play around with the type, color, height, and width. Refer to this article to learn more. If our model was loaded, we use React.Fragment to go ahead and define our user interface. It allows us to render multiple elements.

By default, React only allows us to render one element.

Our user interface has three key parts. The Passage, Ask a Question, and Answers parts. The Passage is a text area where we put a passage that we want the model to read through. The Ask a Question area allows us to pass our input question. On key press (Enter).

This triggers the questionAnswer function which we defined earlier, runs our passage and question to the model, and returns an answer. If we’ve got no answer, then we are going to display nothing. Finally, the model performs evaluations and score readings from the model.


This tutorial has demonstrated how we can leverage the pre-trained BERT model to build a BERT-powered question-and-answer web application. We can pass through a passage, ask it a question, and by using that passage, the model can extrapolate and give you an answer back from that passage.

You can try it out yourself. Grab any passage from Wikipedia and wait to see what answers it will give and their score values.

Happy coding!


Peer Review Contributions by: Willies Ogola

About the author

Lilian Tonia

Tonia is an undergraduate computer science student. She loves developing web solutions, artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms. She is open to research and colaborating with other developers.

This article was contributed by a student member of Section's Engineering Education Program. Please report any errors or innaccuracies to