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March 2, 2017

Natural Language in an Unnatural World

If you believe the hype, we stand at the brink of Artificial Intelligence (AI) becoming reality, but much commentary is light on the detail.  I wanted to take time out to celebrate one of AI’s core elements we already take for granted: Natural Language Processing (NLP).

The focus of conversation around machines becoming human-like has often centred on ‘learning’, ‘problem solving’ or morality. Yet when we consider the very things that make us “human”, I’d say language plays a vital role in that identifier. 

NLP has slipped into the mainstream with little fanfare; and it’s steadily growing with each nuanced improvement and systems update. So let’s reflect on this amazing technology that enables complex, abstract thought processing and sharing.

What is NLP?

NLP is the babel fish between humans and machines. It’s a bit of technology that essentially enables machines to understand human languages, like English. 

What’s cool about that, you ask? When you think about it, language is fluid, it’s organic – forever morphing, evolving and infinitely nuanced. Developing technology that can extend itself to grasp slang, misspellings, creative grammar and individual accents then translating that into activity is truly fanfare-worthy. The implications and opportunities presented for improving accessibility are immeasurable, as are those for enabling exponential tech growth through systems collaboration and engaging future developers.

You’re probably using NLP already. When you type a question into your search engine.. the way you’d ask a friend. When you’re talking to SIRI or your in-car computer. If you’re an early adopter, you might even have your own little Google Home bot (made famous at the Superbowl with this ad.

This is just the beginning

Current products and services are just starting to scratch the surface with multiple tech players stepping up to tap its potential. As such, NLP is amongst the fastest growing tech industries with some market researchers claiming it to grow from its current status of USD 7.63 Billion in 2016 to USD 16.07 Billion by 2021. 

These growth predictions are based on increased adoption by the majority of tech ‘solution vendors’ such as 3M, Apple, Dolbey Systems, Google, HP, IBM Incorporation, Microsoft Corporation, NetBase Solutions (source:

Their developers have in some ways become the new world language trackers, documenters and culture historians. With thousands dedicated to the ongoing indentification of how people string words together, and even effectively capturing sentiment and intent with IBM’s Watson Tone Analyzers “ you can help clarify your email’s tone without an emoji (Buzz60)”.

More than convenient

Apart from making your life easier, NLP is playing a life-changing role in the field of healthcare. For sufferers of motor neuron disease (or ALS), which results the loss of muscles due to nerve damage, their eye movements can be the only way to communicate.

Gazespeak is a new app developed by Microsoft, using a smart phone, the techology interprets eye signals recording them as letters, and allowing the person to ‘talk’.

In this case, NLP plays a massive part in taking a few letters and predicting words for ALS sufferers. Given we speak anywhere between 2,000 to 20,000 words a day (a gender based difference, but that’s a whole different story!) –being able to complete a word with just one less letter, makes an enormous difference to these people’s lives.

It’s cool, appreciate it

Like with many new technologies that strive to, and achieve frictionless’ness - it’s instantly taken for granted. If, like me, you were raised on the promise of a technicolour world where machines are part of the family, we’re well on our way there. And that’s cool. But sometimes is good to stop and appreciate the craft of it all.



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