Natural language processing (NLP) has proven itself to be revolutionary technology. Its applications are growing and helping to power other very useful technologies. With examples of NLP dating back to 1950, it’s been used for real-world applications (like the ones I will discuss here) as well as part of solving a larger issue at hand. In this post, I’ll give you a very brief overview of what NLP is and some everyday examples of NLP tasks.
What is NLP
NLP is the point where linguistics, computer science, and artificial intelligence meet. The goal being to program a computer to be able to process, analyse and derive meaning from large amounts of natural human language data.
Before I dive into the examples, I want to put my linguist hat on to discuss a misconception about language quickly. I’ve noticed that people sometimes talk about how languages don’t follow a set of strict rules citing the large number of exceptions and confusing spelling rules. While it is true that human language is complex, dismissing the existence of rules because of inconsistencies is foolish at best. Human language is governed by grammar (a set of rules) but also by other verbal cues such as tone or intonation, as well as non-verbal cues like context and body language. This is why the technology that is available now, compared to that available 70 years ago, is considered revolutionary and is changing our lives for the better.
5 NLP applications in everyday life:
Now the fun part - the real life examples.
What is... Search Autocomplete
Search autocomplete - this feature is pretty ubiquitous and needs little introduction. Search autocomplete is a feature that lets search engines predict the query and provide multiple outcome options that the user can then choose and search. Here are two members of the Google Search Team answering some of the most commonly asked questions related to search autocomplete.
Machine translation is a wonderful tool that allows us to break the language barriers that separate us. The issue about context that I mentioned earlier is apparent here. Picture this - you’re in high school and you’re supposed to say a speech for your second language course but you haven’t prepared. You use Google translate and all seems fine and well but you still do badly. Why? Simply put, Google translate can’t understand the context and intricacies leaving you with obvious evidence that you used the tool.
For some fun, click here to take a Buzzfeed quiz to see if you can recognise famous movie quotes after being passed through Google translate a few times.
Predictive text is a tool on many devices and platforms that allow the user to add a whole using one button or keystroke. In the above picture, the text above the keyboard illustrates this tool in action. As you use the tool or device, it starts to build a personal dictionary of frequently used words and phrases for you to choose. This means that the tool can predict the likelihood of the user typing a particular word in a particular context.
A chatbot is a piece of software that utilises AI and ML to facilitate online conversations between humans and computers. These automated programs simulate human interactions and, as such, have been widely adopted as customer interaction tools. Businesses can improve their customer service with chatbots because they understand, interact, and talk with their customers.
Another use for chatbots is for healthcare. To help fight the war against Covid misinformation, Whatsapp and the World Health Organisation launched a chatbot that aims to give answers to users about the virus. Included in this field is mental health care. The University of Pretoria launched a chatbot named SCU-B that talks to students and provides them with helpful resources. You can read about that here.
Digital voice assistants
Virtual assistants like Google Assistant, Siri or Alexa are essentially voice-activated chatbots that interact with you using speech rather than text alone. Now, you can operate your phone without having to touch the screen at all. Siri, for example, can read Google search results or even set an alarm for you. Google Assistant, on the other hand, is available for Apple and Android users… and new Fiat 500 owners? With the new Fiat 500 Family, you can check the status of your car - its fuel level, whether you locked it, or switch on the emergency lights without even being in the car.
It’s nearly impossible to consider life without NLP technology whether it’s to save time with autocompleting search fields, or a chatbot that gives you real-time information about a product or service. They are not perfect right now, but the future looks filled with opportunities. To find out how we can help you integrate NLP into your business, contact us today.