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What is NLP? [An Intro to Natural Language Processing]

What is nlp

What is NLP?

NLP stands for natural language processing, an AI technique designed to process, analyze, or create natural human language. 

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NLP is often used in businesses to automate certain types of tasks, such as customer service communications, marketing communications, and, more recently, writing. 

Below, we’ll take a close look at what NLP is, why it matters for businesses, its limitations, and more.

What Is NLP?

NLP stands for natural language processing, as mentioned, which means that AI processes natural human language. It does this in two ways – understanding and creating language.

Through a series of AI techniques, NLP programs can perform tasks such as:

  • Picking out the topics within a text
  • Summarizing a text into a more concise form
  • Analyzing the positive or negative emotions of a text
  • Understanding the grammatical relationships between words, sentences, and parts of speech
  • Generating text that is grammatically correct
  • Analyzing the semantics, or the meaning, of text

These types of tasks are performed using several different NLP techniques.

A few of these include:

  • Sentiment analysis, which analyzes and scores emotional content of a text on a scale from negative to positive
  • Syntactic analysis, which breaks down the text structure into grammatical relationships
  • Part-of-speech tagging, or identifying the parts of speech of text, 
  • Named entity recognition, or tagging proper nouns, such as people, places, names, and other targeted “entities,” such as phone numbers and addresses

All of these techniques can be combined into more complex functions, which, in turn, can be used to create features of products or complete products. 

The reason NLP has become so popular recently is that it can add tremendous value to customers and businesses.

Chatbots: An Example of NLP in Action

NLP can perform many tasks job tasks that are normally done by humans. 

This can include many activities that involve language, from having a voice conversation to translating text to chatting with people on a terminal.

Chatbots, for example, interact with humans in a variety of business scenarios:

  • They can be used on a website as virtual customer service agents
  • They can be used as virtual technical support staff
  • They can be used within an organization to help employees, as self-service bots that can answer questions or perform tasks
  • They can also be used in daily lives to perform tasks that range from scheduling appointments to sending emails to making phone calls

Importantly, one reason why chatbots are so useful is that they are usually integrated with other software functions. 

For instance, customer service chatbots are often integrated with business software. This enables them to perform tasks related to the business, such as submitting a support request or canceling an order.

Why Use NLP?

There are several reasons:

  • NLP is cheaper than human labor. For enterprises, employing large amounts of human labor can be costly. Not only must the organization pay employee salaries, it must also pay for equipment, such as office equipment, software, hardware, as well as real estate.
  • NLP does not get tired. While NLP may have its drawbacks, it does not succumb to factors that might influence human employees’ behavior, such as tiredness, mood, and time of day. These virtual agents will always be consistent and they will perform the same way at all times of the day, indefinitely.
  • NLP applications are scalable. Since NLP is software, it can be scaled endlessly. As long as the organization hosting the software has adequate computing resources, software programs can perform tasks and be duplicated as much as necessary. A single application, for instance, can replace or perform certain tasks as well as – if not better than – humans could.
  • NLP doesn’t make mistakes. It is important to recognize that NLP has limitations. But once it has achieved a certain level of accuracy, NLP will not make errors.

Ultimately, NLP can generate bottom-line performance benefits for the organization. Early adopters of NLP may be able to leverage this technology to gain an advantage in the marketplace, while those who fail to adopt may fall behind their competitors.

The Limitations of NLP

NLP is simply a set of techniques designed to process language.

While AI may be able to emulate human language, it is important to recognize that NLP:

  • Is not intelligent
  • Cannot understand the content of its language
  • Does not feel

Tasks that require analysis and certain human qualities, such as analytical thinking and empathy, cannot and should not be relegated to AI.

Instead, AI functions such as NLP should be used to augment human activities, rather than replace them completely.

Further Reading

Those interested in learning more about NLP can find plenty of useful materials online.

Here are just a few:

For those who want a more basic introduction to the technology underpinning NLP, though, it may be best to start with an introduction to AI.

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