natural language processing (NLP)

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.

How natural language processing works: techniques and tools              

Syntax and semantic analysis are two main techniques used with natural language processing. Syntax is the arrangement of words in a sentence to make grammatical sense. NLP uses syntax to assess meaning from a language based on grammatical rules. Syntax techniques used include parsing (grammatical analysis for a sentence), word segmentation (which divides a large piece of text to units), sentence breaking (which places sentence boundaries in large texts), morphological segmentation (which divides words into groups) and stemming (which divides words with inflection in them to root forms).

Semantics involves the use and meaning behind words. NLP applies algorithms to understand the meaning and structure of sentences. Techniques that NLP uses with semantics include word sense disambiguation (which derives meaning of a word based on context), named entity recognition (which determines words that can be categorized into groups), and natural language generation (which will use a database to determine semantics behind words).

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 labeled 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.

Three tools used commonly for NLP include NLTK, Gensim, and Intel NLP Architect. NTLK, Natural Language Toolkit, is an open source python modules with data sets and tutorials. Gensim is a Python library for topic modeling and document indexing. Intel NLP Architect is also another Python library for deep learning topologies and techniques.

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

Uses of natural language processing

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. Before deep learning-based NLP models, this information was inaccessible to computer-assisted analysis and could not be analyzed in any systematic way. But NLP allows analysts to sift through massive troves of free text to find relevant information in the files.

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.

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 natural 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 frequently appear 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.

Benefits of NLP

NLP hosts benefits such as:

  • Improved accuracy and efficiency of documentation.
  • The ability to automatically make a readable summary text.
  • Useful for personal assistants such as Alexa.
  • Allows an organization to use chatbots for customer support.
  • Easier to perform sentiment analysis.

 Challenges associated with NLP

NLP has not yet been wholly perfected. For example, semantic analysis can still be a challenge for NLP. Other difficulties include the fact that abstract use of language is typically tricky for programs to understand. For instance, NLP does not pick up sarcasm easily. These topics usually require the understanding of the words being used and the context in which the way they are being used. As another example, a sentence can change meaning depending on which word the speaker puts stress on. NLP is also challenged by the fact that language, and the way people use it, is continually changing.

This was last updated in May 2019

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