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NLP: Achievements, Trends, and Challenges

Natural Language Processing (NLP for short) is a subfield of Data Science. Its main task is to allow computers to understand human language. NLP has been continuously developing for some time now, and it has already achieved incredible results. It is now used in a variety of applications and makes our lives much more comfortable. This article will describe the benefits of natural language processing. We will provide a couple of examples of NLP use cases and tell you about its most remarkable achievements, future trends, and the challenges it faces.

Table of contents:
1. Benefits of NLP
2. NLP use cases in the real world
3. What has NLP achieved so far
4. What is the future of Natural Language Processing
5. What are the challenges NLP has to overcome
6. Conclusion
7. FAQ

Benefits of NLP

Natural language processing has gained so much attention because of its practical importance. Later in this article, we will demonstrate some of the applications of NLP, but for now, let us concentrate on its main benefits, which include:

  • Large-scale analysis

    Large-scale analysis: NLP allows us to process vast amounts of text documents of all kinds very quickly, which is impossible to do manually.

  • Accuracy

    Accuracy: NLP tools get better with experience, so their accuracy will only increase with time. Manual analysis, on the other hand, may lead to mistakes. Humans may be unattentive, especially while working with repetitive tasks.

  • Improved user experience

    Improved user experience: Natural language processing allows for the automation of many routine tasks. It can sort trouble tickets, categorize customer feedback, and even communicate with customers. NLP can optimize website search engines, give better recommendations, or moderate user-generated content.

  • Better market understanding

    Better market understanding: Machine learning and NLP, in particular, allow us to better search for and analyze relevant data. Businesses can use social media comments, customer reviews, trends, statistics to improve their services, adjust their supply, prices, etc. 

  • Automation and efficiency

    Automation and efficiency: Tasks like translation or text summarization can be fully automated. This, in turn, saves time and money. Some natural language processing tools make our daily tasks more comfortable, for example, grammar checkers.

These are some very general benefits of NLP. We will better understand its power and importance with examples.

NLP Use Cases in the Real World

Natural Language Processing is used in multiple ways. Here are some of them.

Machine translation

Machine translation: Everyone has used Google Translate at some point. But have you noticed how much it has improved over the last few years? Not only does it give you translations, but it also chooses the correct word form and offers synonyms when possible. Incredible, isn’t it? Another interesting example of machine translation is the program TIDES. It is funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and its main goal is to automate text translation and summarization. The program is of great interest to the U.S. military in the Middle East. The focus is on understanding local languages. It will make the communication between military members and civilians as quick as possible. 

Google Translate can offer different  translation options to choose from

Text summarization

Text summarization is a process of extracting the most important parts of the text, making it shorter and more explicit. Text summarization is extremely useful when there is no time or possibility to work with the entire text. Natural language processing algorithms will determine the most relevant phrases and sentences and present them as a summary of the text. We have all seen automatic text summarization in action, even if we did not realize it. One exciting application of text summarization is a Wikipedia article’s description. Any time we enter our query, if there is a Wikipedia article about it, Google will show one or two sentences describing the entity we are looking for. 

Google uses text summarization to show a brief description of the searched entity

Another example would be news summarization. A typical American newspaper publishes a few hundred articles every day. There are more than a thousand such newspapers in the U.S., which yield hundreds of thousands of items daily. An enormous quantity, isn’t it? Not a single human being can process such a massive amount of information. But machines can. And it is precisely NLP that makes it possible to analyze all of this news and extract the most important events. 

Text classification

Text classification is used to assign an appropriate category to the text. As you may have seen, articles on news websites are often divided into categories. Such categorization is usually done automatically with the help of text classification algorithms. 

News categorization allows readers to find articles related to a specific topic quickly

You can also encounter text classification in product monitoring. Suppose you are a business owner, and you are interested in what people are saying about your product. In that case, you may use natural language processing to categorize the mentions you have found on the internet into specific categories. You may want to know what people are saying about the quality of the product, its price, your competitors, or how they would like the product to be improved. 

Sentiment analysis

Sentiment analysis is a subtask of text classification. Its primary purpose is to divide the text into two categories: positive and negative. For example, if the company wants to know its customers’ opinions, they might collect a set of tweets and conduct sentiment analysis. Because there are millions of tweets created every day, it would be physically impossible to manually perform such a task. Therefore, NLP is used. 

NLP algorithms would recognize such a positive comment and let the company know what its customers think

Language modeling

Language modeling refers to predicting the probability of a sequence of words staying together. In layman’s terms, language modeling tries to determine how likely it is that certain words stand nearby. This approach is handy in spelling correction, text summarization, handwriting analysis, machine translation, etc. Remember how Gmail or Google Docs offers you words to finish your sentence? This is language modeling in action.

Gmail provides the most common endings as you type

Another famous example is Microsoft Word’s spelling checker. It calculates the probability of a word appearing in a sentence. It then gives you recommendations on correcting the word and improving the grammar.

Microsoft Word can find incorrect spelling and propose options to correct it

Question answering

Question answering is a subfield of NLP, which aims to answer human questions automatically. The most famous use case is chatbots. Many websites use them to answer basic customer questions, provide information, or collect feedback. It makes customer support much easier and quicker. 

Chatbots make customer support quick and efficient and often help clients with their questions

Another fascinating application of question answering is robotics. Look at those incredible robots from Boston Dynamics. They are truly breathtaking, and they are becoming more and more complex every year. They can do many different things, like dancing, jumping, carrying heavy objects, etc. But can they be considered intelligent? According to the Turing test, a machine is deemed to be smart if, during a conversation, it cannot be distinguished from a human, and so far, several programs have successfully passed this test. ELIZA, PARRY, Eugene, and Cleverbot are some of the examples. All these programs use question answering techniques to make a conversation as close to human as possible. We can only hope that we will be able to talk to machines as equals in the future.

ELIZA was the first natural language processing computer program to pass the Turing test

Video games

Video games are gaining more and more popularity. They are an essential aspect of our lives (at least, for some of us), and it is fascinating to watch the evolution of games caused by AI. In particular, natural language processing is used to generate unique conversations and create exceptional experiences. We are not limited to a preprogrammed set of phrases anymore. Our game may develop in any direction thanks to natural language processing.

Also, let’s take AI Dungeon as an example. It is a text adventure game that uses natural language processing models to generate unlimited content. You can play infinitely long and always face different challenges and situations. All the characters, stories, conversations, and plots are unique. How cool is that?

AI Dungeon allows each player to create his/her individual scenario

This is not a complete list of NLP use cases; there are many more. However, these are the most widely known and commonly used applications, and they show how powerful and exciting natural language processing can be.

What has NLP Achieved So Far?

Natural language processing appeared 70 years ago when Alan Turing proposed his famous test as a machine intelligence criterion. It was believed at that time that machines would become extremely smart and powerful in the nearest future. Scientists claimed: such problems as machine translation would be solved within several years. 

However, as we now know, these predictions did not come to life so quickly. Machines are still pretty limited. There is still much work to do and many difficulties to overcome. But it does not mean that natural language processing has not been evolving. On the contrary, it has achieved incredible heights. NLP was revolutionized by the development of neural networks in the last two decades, and we can now use it for tasks we could not even imagine before.

Here are some of the most exciting things we can do with natural language processing:

  • Search engine

    Search engine:  Google now processes more than 3.5 billion searches per day. An enormous number, isn’t it? And it is rising steadily. But what is truly interesting is HOW Google does that. There are several advanced NLP models used to process all the queries. The most famous one is BERT. It was developed in 2018, and it is already helping the search better understand one in 10 searches in the U.S. only.

An example of how BERT improves the query’s understanding is the search “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa”. Earlier it was not clear to the computer whether it is a Brazilian citizen who is trying to get a visa to the U.S. or an American – to Brazil. The algorithm was just matching keywords. On the other hand, BERT takes into account every word in the sentence and can produce more accurate results. The word “to,” in this case, tells the model a correct destination.

BERT can provide much more relevant results by analyzing the sentence as a whole instead of just matching keywords

  • Text generation

    Text generation: Natural language processing can be used not only for routine tasks but also for creative ones. Many believe that it is impossible to replicate humans creativity and ingenuity, but the GPT-3 model from OpenAI has proven them wrong. GPT-3 can write code, propose use cases for random objects, create memes, and much more

GPT-3 is capable of accomplishing a wide variety of tasks due to its vast amount of parameters that can be tuned for any problem

  • Text correction

    Text correction:  There are many advanced tools for grammar checking besides the one used by Microsoft Word – for example, Grammarly. Apart from usual spelling correction, it can check your style and tone. It can propose synonyms and word rearrangements, control for the level of formality, and even detect tautology.

Grammarly can check your grammar and suggest improvements

  • Virtual assistants

    Virtual assistants: Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant – they are everywhere: at home, at work, and even on your phone. Virtual assistants may be useful and amusing, but they are also the result of NLP evolution. Virtual assistants are different from the above applications. They also use speech recognition – a remarkable feature that makes our lives easier. 

Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and Cortana – the four most popular virtual assistants

These are just a few examples that demonstrate the power of natural language processing. But it can go even further! So, what is it that lies ahead?

What is the Future of NLP?

The primary point of natural language processing is to make computers able to understand human language. NLP scientists will try to create models with even better performance and more capabilities.

We can probably expect these NLP models to be used by everyone and everywhere – from individuals to huge companies. Natural language processing is likely to be integrated into various tools and services, and the existing ones will only become better.

Let’s take virtual assistants as an example. They are limited to a particular set of questions and topics and the moment. The smartest ones can search for an answer on the internet and reroute you to a corresponding website. However, virtual assistants get more and more data every day, and it is used for training and improvement. We can anticipate that programs such as Siri or Alexa will be able to have a full conversation, perhaps even including humor. 

Another promising field is text generation. Nowadays, computers can already generate quite complex texts, even songs. But this is not the limit, and future models will be able to do more. Perhaps, write a poem or a fairy tale. Everything is possible!

Let’s take one more example: automatic translation. Imagine how cool it would be to go abroad without worrying about the language. You will just use your phone to translate anything you need. And yes, it is already possible, but the accuracy will only increase!

What are the Challenges Natural Language Processing has to Overcome?

But, as it always is, some problems need to be solved to achieve all of that. They can be divided into two categories: issues related to data and problems related to the language itself. 

The problems with data include:

  • Low-resource languages

    Low-resource languages: Some languages are very poorly presented, as they are not widely used. This concerns, first of all, African languages. There are thousands of them, but only a few people know them. And, of course, those people do not use any NLP technologies so far.

Young, H. (2015, January 23). A language family tree in pictures. The Guardian. 

There are thousands of local languages in the world; many of them are used by a minimal number of people

  • Large amounts of data

    Large amounts of data: The amount of data generated daily is genuinely enormous. To process and analyze it, we need time and power. Massive data centers are built for this purpose, but the best natural language processing models still train for weeks and take a lot of space, and these models are becoming more prominent all the time.

  • Low quality

    Low quality: A considerable portion of data generated is not of a particular quality. It needs some preprocessing, which takes time and money. It is, therefore, relatively expensive and time-consuming to work with text data.

  • Evaluation

    Evaluation: Due to vast amounts of data, it is usually not labeled, making it challenging to test its performance. 

  • Data labeling

    Data labeling is one of the biggest challenges NLP data scientists face. Most of the text data generated are unlabeled. So it has to be done manually. In some cases, it is an easy task. For example, an entirely accurate sentiment analysis may be done by already existing models. But in others, it is complicated and time-consuming. An example is NER (or Named Entity Recognition), which is the task of extracting named entities (names, organizations, locations, etc.) from unstructured texts. It requires concentration and attention. Otherwise, essential data may be missed.

The following are among the significant challenges NLP scientist have to deal with while working with a language:

  • Context

    Context: Same words may have different meanings depending on the context, while some words may have similar pronunciation but different meanings. This creates trouble for speech-to-text systems and, later, NLP models.

  • Synonyms

    Synonyms: There are words with the same meanings, but some of them are very rarely used. Such terms may not be recognized as synonyms during the analysis.

  • Emotions

    Emotions: Human language has many complex mechanisms that are difficult for machines. For example, sarcasm or irony is not likely to be recognized by the natural language processing model in most cases.

This tweet obviously contains sarcasm, but the NLP model is more likely to detect it as a positive one

  • Domain-specific language

    Domain-specific language : Vocabulary across industries may differ quite a lot. Thus, it is challenging to create a universal model. Usually, it is a better idea to train models on data related to one particular industry.

There are other issues, such as ambiguity and slang, that create similar challenges. The main point is that the human language is a very complex and diversified mechanism. It varies greatly across geographical regions, industries, ages, types of people, etc. It is, therefore, quite challenging to analyze a language as a whole. 

At the moment, scientists can quite successfully analyze a part of a language concerning one area or industry. There is still a long way to go until we will have a universal tool that will work equally well with different languages and accomplish various tasks.

Conclusion

Natural language processing, while having its limitations, is still potent. It makes our lives much more comfortable and can bring significant benefits to businesses. There are many applications already in use. Among them: automatic translators, grammar checking tools, virtual assistants, etc. But it is anticipated that this number will only increase. 

It will undoubtedly take some time, as there are multiple challenges to solve. But NLP is steadily developing, becoming more powerful every year, and expanding its capabilities.

FAQ

Why is NLP important?

With vast amounts of data generated and most of it being text data, natural language processing is becoming more and more critical for processing this data. It then creates tremendous opportunities: from translation to personal assistance.

What can NLP do for my business?

Natural language processing is actively used in e-commerce as well. Businesses use it to improve the search on a website, run chatbots or analyze clients’ feedback.

How does NLP work?

Earlier, natural language processing was based on statistical analysis, but nowadays, we can use machine learning, which has significantly improved performance.