min read
June 2, 2017

A 101 on Natural Language Processing in Business

Digital Strategy

Benchmarked by industry forerunners and expanding explosively by its own methodology, the best customer experiences in natural language processing (NLP) are found through continued and correct application: a surprisingly difficult task, given the subtleties of human expression.In the late ’90s, the Internet first emerged as a vast, unknowable expanse. The first companies to address this digital mass – Google, Yahoo, eBay – built broad-based search engines to identify and isolate monetizable elements of this new medium, and to provide a clear map of what was worth seeing and experiencing on the web, based on each search engine's proprietary means of scoring content relevance.Upon analyzing the mass of unstructured data that makes up 80 percent of the user posts, email, messaging and other documented assets that comprise the Internet, businesses are challenged to understand what’s relevant.Natural language processing, along with machine learning, have developed into fast-growing fields that businesses are using to make more efficient decisions.

Natural Language Processing Through Machine Learning

Almost 20 years after the foundation of Google, Yahoo and eBay, the complexity of question-based queries and the volume of content that the Internet is framed around has elevated in magnitude, but the challenge has largely remained the same. A series of distinctions have been made in computer science to discuss how that challenge is being addressed through the use of intelligent systems.While artificial intelligence builds systems that are broadly capable of acting intelligently, machine learning (ML) is a set of problems therein where those systems are equipped with experience, which is applied independently of other processes, so that they may learn. Machine learning addresses the question of data relevancy with natural language processing (NLP).In NLP, the specific aspects of teaching a system to read and understand text are based in machine learning principles – the system may not necessarily intrinsically understand language, but, given examples of it, may develop an algorithm by which it can process it. These applications of AI have advanced more in the past three years than in the three decades preceding them.

An Assistant For Your Search

Chatbots and intelligent assistants have been around for decades, and represent the first of continuing strategies for using NLP to interact with users, who may or may not be aware of whom or what they are speaking to. From Eliza, who was built in 1966 parallel to the Turing test to converse with and simulate a human, to Siri and Cortana, who reside in every smartphone and home device, the first demand for machine learning has always been the guide, the helper – the personal assistant who is never unavailable, less than pleasant, or short of answers.Driven by the development of the smartphone and the resulting cloud that represents the Internet of Things (IoT), modern conversational devices seek to digest a wealth of information in order to provide answers to any user who might consult them. Below are a few of the major virtual assistant contributors:

  • Alexa is an virtual assistant built into Amazon’s Echo smart speaker, activated by command and built to answer and facilitate any need a user might express, from brushing up on current events to controlling aspects of a smart home.
  • Google Home is a similar approach that uses a syntactic system of follow-up questions that integrates Chromecast, Google’s proprietary media streaming device, to provide users with another quality virtual assistant experience.
  • Apple’s virtual assistant Siri places an emphasis on personality, and will soon be integrated into an announced but yet-unreleased home speaker device, and ideally regarded as another member of the family.

How NLP Finds Meaning

Digital voice-activated devices have also become the standard approach to mobile development, and their market is expected to double YoY through 2020. Gartner also predicts that, by 2018, 30% of our interactions with technology will be through conversations with smart machines. As mobile internet consumption increases, voice and more complex queries are starting to take off. Advances in natural language processing will work along these new vectors, by using the some of the following classes below:

  • Automatic summarization calculates the frequencies of words, then sorts, simplifies, and reconfigures a body of text based on the most meaningful parts of a context. By extracting these important sentences and creating comprehensive summaries, it’s possible to quickly assess the important and most stressed aspects of a document.
  • Sentiment analysis takes the ways in which humans express opinions with language, and refines it into more concise and focused structure with clear meaning.
  • Q & A is of course the explicit and ultimate priority in addressing a query, employed to funnel all searches into the one common, topical and correct response that most users are seeking. The algorithm does not need to understand the queries it receives – it must only identify the assets relevant to the query, and then match it against the organizational text that categorizes the answer.

Watson - NLP Applied In Business

Financial organizations have been first adopters of NLP, chiefly to identify insights within the deluge of digital reportage. To assist their execs with deciphering quality data points, IBM's Watson Knowledge Studio is able to append notifications to specific stocks, read public confidence in a company/new executive hire and evaluate the implications of international news events to provide prompt, actionable advice.Additionally, NLP can also be used to comb social media for positive/negative sentiment in client conversations, alloy analyst reportage with current, detailed information and even find patterns of query and purchasing that indicate insider trades.Watson is also consuming millions of scholarly articles and unifying them into a prognostic and therapeutic model, for use by clinicians to detect and identify heart disease. This process, known as clinical decision support (CDS), maps unstructured data and reformulates it into useful information, for re-admitted into medical records. For this task, Watson processed 21 million records in six weeks, achieving an 85 percent accuracy rate for patient identification. This success geared the supercomputer to tackle the more sophisticated problems found in the indicators and associated genomic data used in cancer diagnosis – taking the potential of Watson beyond speculation, into concrete application in a critical field.

The Future of NLP in Business

Looking towards future implementations of these powerful algorithms, businesses are increasingly focused on several key features that have shown direct return in locating the voice of the user:

  • A zero or invisible user interface suggests an unadorned conversation, where the user is speaking simply and with minimal abstraction to the machine. The machine uses NLP to understand what we say, regardless of how we say it.
  • Smarter search is a functionality where machine comprehension is based on conversational query rather than keywords or topics, often used in GPS-type applications where articulating needs and inquiries is not necessarily done consciously.
  • Better operation in the question answering aspect of NLP involves deriving tone from choices of phrases and idioms commonly used in human communication. In this way, the creation and understanding of business reports, transcriptions, reviews and other audience-specific communications will become much easier and more efficient to both produce and consume.

Balancing these features will be vital to keeping consumers engaged as NLP continues to mature.

NLP in Practice and Partnership

The route to replicating the best customer experiences in NLP, as already benchmarked by industry forerunners, lies in continued and correct application. Developers would utilize the latest in open source tools, agree on new standards and even grow new languages to suit the needs of complex learning systems.Although there are still many solutions yet to be solved against NLP processes, businesses must drive towards finding the voice of the user and identifying what they are truly seeking. As this new technology matriculates itself into more and more business processes, having a quality partner to assist in these decisions will be crucial in staying ahead of the curve as business becomes more streamlined and automated.

Centric Digital