Definition

natural language processing (NLP)

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Special Report: Artificial intelligence apps come of age
Contributor(s): Ed Burns

Natural language processing (NLP) is the ability of a computer program to understand human language as it is spoken. NLP is a component of artificial intelligence (AI).

The development of NLP applications is challenging because computers traditionally require humans to "speak" to them in a programming language that is precise, unambiguous and highly structured, or through a limited number of clearly enunciated voice commands. Human speech, however, is not always precise -- it is often ambiguous and the linguistic structure can depend on many complex variables, including slang, regional dialects and social context.

Uses of natural language processing

Most of the research being done on natural language processing revolves around search, especially enterprise search. This involves allowing users to query data sets in the form of a question that they might pose to another person. The machine interprets the important elements of the human language sentence, such as those that might correspond to specific features in a data set, and returns an answer.

NLP can be used to interpret free text and make it analyzable. There is a tremendous amount of information stored in free text files, like patients' medical records, for example. Prior to deep learning-based NLP models, this information was inaccessible to computer-assisted analysis and could not be analyzed in any kind of systematic way. But NLP allows analysts to sift through massive troves of free text to find relevant information in the files.


This video explains how to use
deep learning to build NLP models.

Sentiment analysis is another primary use case for NLP. Using sentiment analysis, data scientists can assess comments on social media to see how their business's brand is performing, for example, or review notes from customer service teams to identify areas where people want the business to perform better.

Google and other search engines base their machine translation technology on NLP deep learning models. This allows algorithms to read text on a webpage, interpret its meaning and translate it to another language.

How natural language processing works

Current approaches to NLP are based on deep learning, a type of AI that examines and uses patterns in data to improve a program's understanding. Deep learning models require massive amounts of labelled data to train on and identify relevant correlations, and assembling this kind of big data set is one of the main hurdles to NLP currently.

Earlier approaches to NLP involved a more rules-based approach, where simpler machine learning algorithms were told what words and phrases to look for in text and given specific responses when those phrases appeared. But deep learning is a more flexible, intuitive approach in which algorithms learn to identify speakers' intent from many examples, almost like how a child would learn human language.

Importance of NLP

The advantage of natural language processing can be seen when considering the following two statements: "Cloud computing insurance should be part of every service level agreement" and "A good SLA ensures an easier night's sleep -- even in the cloud." If you use national language processing for search, the program will recognize that cloud computing is an entity, that cloud is an abbreviated form of cloud computing and that SLA is an industry acronym for service level agreement.

These are the types of vague elements that appear frequently in human language and that machine learning algorithms have historically been bad at interpreting. Now, with improvements in deep learning and artificial intelligence, algorithms can effectively interpret them.

This has implications for the types of data that can be analyzed. More and more information is being created online every day, and a lot of it is natural human language. Until recently, businesses have been unable to analyze this data. But advances in NLP make it possible to analyze and learn from a greater range of data sources.

This was last updated in September 2017

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