In Plain English, Please; Communicating with Computers Using Natural Language Processing

By King, Karl G.; Elliott, Raymond W. | Journal of Accountancy, March 1990 | Go to article overview

In Plain English, Please; Communicating with Computers Using Natural Language Processing


King, Karl G., Elliott, Raymond W., Journal of Accountancy


IN PLAIN ENGLISH, PLEASE

Communicating with computers using natural language processing.

A natural language processor is a computer program that permits the computer to understand human language. "Understand" in this context means the computer can accept ordinary human language input through the keyboard and then perform the required computing tasks. Hence, the program transforms everyday written language into a form usable by a computer.

Human languages are complex and incorporate many features that produce ambiguity: different meanings for the same words and different meanings produced by sentence structures, idioms and metaphors. Many problems must be solved in transforming them for use by a computer. The foremost is converting potentially ambiguous input into an unambiguous statement. A natural language processor must deal with more than one potential interpretation of input.

Over the years, this has been a stumbling block. Many researchers claimed their natural language programs could perform impressive feats of understanding. Although commercial software vendors advertised their products as "programs that understand you so you don't have to understand them," the claims often exceeded the capabilities. The programs frequently appeared to perform well under highly structured experimental conditions but failed when confronted with real world tasks.

Recently, however, two developments contributed to progress in practical applications of natural language processing technology.

* The dramatic increases in computer speed and memory capacity of computers and the cost-effectiveness of computing have made it possible to apply greater capabilities to the task.

* A shift toward simplicity--from trying to emulate human understanding of language to achieving a capacity to understand sufficient for carrying out practical tasks.

Businesses are not likely to see natural language processors with full human understanding of language in the near future. Researchers pursuing this goal are producing techniques with some practical applications in peripheral aspects of language processing (such as word recognition), but they still appear to be quite far from emulating the higher cognitive functions needed to duplicate real human understanding.

The American Institute of CPAs information technology research subcommittee has been studying this field and has prepared a management advisory services special report on natural language processing--An Introduction to Natural Language Processing, to be published in April. This article was adapted from that report.

ADVANTAGES

Using ordinary human language to input and execute computing functions reduces a barrier to computer use. Consequently, productivity will be improved by

* Increasing users' abilities to handle complex tasks. Natural language allows tasks to be combined with a common language thread.

* Transforming text into a knowledge base. Natural language processors can scan large amounts of text to extract meaningful information and create a database.

* Expediting access to computer data. Natural language allows one to query existing databases or request reports without knowing exact coding, spellings or syntax.

* Extending the use of data to a larger population. Different people can use different terms to obtain the same results.

* Decreasing user training requirements. Natural language processors reduce the time required to learn new applications. They also benefit infrequent users by eliminating the time spent relearning specific commands.

Natural language processing technology is being used in several practical applications including

* Structured conversational systems.

* Interactive training systems.

* Interfaces to databases.

* Knowledge acquisition from texts.

STRUCTURED CONVERSATIONAL SYSTEMS

Cognitive Systems, Inc. …

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