Natural language processing: is this the end of the written word?

How important is natural language processing?

"The most natural form of communication is talking," says Jonathan Whitmore, UK, Ireland and Middle East Regional Sales Manager at Nuance Communications, which makes the Dragon speech-to-text software. "It offers a common means of interfacing with multiple devices, from phones to televisions. A voice is unique to an individual so it is a secure way of identifying a person and it is easier to talk to a phone rather than trying to type messages."

However, creating a realistic, responsive website or app that can understand and give intelligent responses is more complex. "That requires research into semantics, linguistics, the context of conversations, the way people search for information and the relationship between different data, but this is where we will see the most advances," says Whitmore.

It's all about context. "To avoid a stilted user experience, the technology must be able to understand the way that people navigate video content, jumping between genre and content type, and at the same time provide personalised recommendations," says Dawes. "This next-generation 'conversation" technology offers consumers a way out of having to use the clunky remote control interface and, rather than having to learn how to talk to the device, allow them to speak and interact with their TVs as they would with another human being."

Can natural language processing solve crime?

Seems so. Linguistics academics in the US founded Fonetic, which uses "sentiment analysis" to analyse strings of speech between bankers, alerting compliance teams to possibly fraudulent conversations on trading floors. This is all about context; Fonetic has spent five years building-up a finance industry-specific lexicon in 79 languages. Santander loves it.

"Fraudulent behaviour is likely to be coded language or could be an act that is related to market abuse, such as insider dealing," says Simon Richards, CEO of Fonetic US. "The technology puts intelligent structure to unstructured data such as a voice call … applying indexing and categorisation to things that are being talked about." The software can detect when something makes sense, when it doesn't, and determine patterns and trends.

Fonetic analyses all voice calls in real-time, because transcription doesn't cut it, according to Richards. "When the audio is transcribed before analysis, whether the transcription is phonetic or speech-to-text, there is typically a loss of up to 60% of the conversations." Put simply, the written word is inaccurate, and slows things down.

THe end of the written word

Nuance's Dragon Dictate 4 can transcribe voice recordings

Is natural language processing resurrecting dictation?

A voice-activated future may await us, but for now most of us are still kicking around on keyboards at work. Nuance is trying to change that with its Dragon digital dictation and desktop speech recognition software, such as the fabulous Dragon Dictation 4 and the free Dragon Recorder App. The latter now lets the former transcribe voice recordings, which is handy for mobile workers, and makes voice memos suddenly worthwhile.

"A dictation device allows users to capture their thoughts naturally. Given that society today has a culture of sharing – whether via email or social media platforms – dictation and speech recognition play a role in the effective capture and near-instantaneous sharing of an event, activity or even a document," says Whitmore. "In any industry that charges by the hour or by tasks completed, the added productivity provided by dictation and speech can make an appreciable difference and contribution to a company's balance sheet."

Will everything soon use natural language processing?

Probably not. Natural language technologies are already used for Siri and Google Now, and will be in Microsoft's Cortana, but they remain novelty add-ons. Smartphones aren't yet built around them. "Speech must be the central construct of usability design and successfully employ a range of intelligence under the hood to understand context and intent," says Dawes, who thinks that the ever more intuitive smartphones and tablets is producing a generation that wont tolerate dumb home electronics for much longer.