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Technology grows at an exponential rate. Think back to what life was like before we had the internet (if you’re old enough to). What would the you from 1990 think of that smartphone you’re using today to stream TV shows and video chat with relatives from across the country?
Technology changes and grows so fast that a lot of it happens without us even noticing. Natural language processing is a great example of one of these trends — something that is happening around us all the time that we don’t even realize. Some simple, everyday examples of natural language processing tools are spellcheck, autocorrect, spam filters and the Google search bar that tries to predict what you are going to say. These things have made our lives easier and more efficient.
But natural language processing, or NLP, is used in so many different ways, across a huge array of industries. Researchers are breaking ground with NLP innovations and imagining a future that will keep us right on track with that exponential growth.
Keep reading to learn about four natural language processing techniques that are changing people’s lives.
First, A Little Bit Of Background
Natural language processing is an interdisciplinary field that includes both computer science and linguistics. As humans, we have an innate ability to understand other people who speak the same language. Babies respond differently to human language than they do to other sounds. It’s just something that’s programmed into us.
If someone has a different accent — say they’re from New Jersey or South Carolina — we might notice that they pronounce certain words a little differently, but we would still have no problem understanding them.
This is a much more difficult task for computers to do because they’re not naturally geared toward understanding language the way that we are. Anything and everything they know about language has to be taught to them through programming. And the degree of complexity we’ve been able to program them with is getting more advanced every day.
Let’s take Siri as an example. You can ask her about the weather, tell her to call your mom or put on your favorite playlist. She can’t do everything, but she sure can do a lot.
The first speech recognition system was developed by Bell Labs in 1952. Her name was Audrey, and her main ability was that she could recognize the numbers one through 10 when spoken, slowly. That was it.
So there have been decades of study devoted to getting natural language processing techniques to where they are today. Here are some examples.
Livox was an app envisioned and created by Carlos Pereira, a Brazilian father in search of a better life for his daughter. Clara was born with cerebral palsy and was unable to walk or speak. Carlos tried every type of treatment he could find, but nothing seemed to help her, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and create Livox.
The app is essentially a communication device for people with different types of disabilities.
It uses natural language processing to be able to recognize and assist people in their communication. It’s customizable to work with a wide range of different needs and affordable so that anyone can have access to it.
It works in more than 25 languages, and Pereira started a nonprofit called Inclusion Without Borders to try to make the app available to free for those in need. Livox was awarded a UN World Summit Award, and Google gave Inclusion Without Borders a $550,000 grant in 2016.
If you haven’t had a reason to test out Google’s translation feature, now is the time. Copy and paste this sentence into Google Translate: Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.
Google’s natural language processing technology will be able to automatically recognize that this sentence is in German, and then it will give you the English translation, which is: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is known for that quote, but you could say that it applies to all us.
Google Translate gives us access to more than 100 languages spoken throughout the world, and it is used by 500 million people every single day. And Google is just one of many tech companies out there that is using natural language processing to help with translations. In fact, there is even a Swedish startup that claims that by 2021 it will be able to translate the language of dolphins. No joke.
SignAll is a company out of Budapest, Hungary, that is changing the way that the deaf community is able to communicate.
Founded in 2016, it’s a company that uses natural language processing to turn sign language into text. Web cameras capture the physical movements of sign language. The company’s specialized systems are then programmed to recognize and organize the input and turn it into words and sentences.
So if you have a friend who is deaf, but you don’t know any sign language, SignAll’s technology will allow you to be able to translate in real time what they’re saying.
98point6 is a Seattle-based startup that is looking to completely shake up the way we do health care.
This bold tech team is using natural language processing to allow patients to consult with doctors digitally instead of having to wait in line surrounded by other sick people. Have a bad rash and don’t know what it is? You can consult with a doctor from the comfort of your oatmeal bath.
A chatbot walks users through some initial questions and then turns them over to an on-call physician, who can diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatments.
These NLP Techniques Are Just The Tip Of The Iceberg
Every day there are tech companies using NLP techniques in exciting and innovative ways. You’ll want to keep NLP in your sights and think about the ways it might be useful to your business or career.