What Is Natural Language Processing?

Natural language processing, or NLP, is a branch of computer science that involves the analysis of human language in speech and text. A specific subset of AI and machine learning (ML), NLP is already widely used in many applications today. NLP is how voice assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, can understand and respond to human speech and perform tasks based on voice commands.

NLP is the driving technology that allows machines to understand and interact with human speech, but is not limited to voice interactions. Natural language processing is also the technology behind apps such as customer service chatbots. In addition, NLP enables email and SMS apps to automatically suggest replies or text to complete a message as it is typed. These applications, just like voice assistants, cannot intuitively understand human (or “natural”) language.

Why does Natural Language Processing Matter?

Computers, smartphones, and other machines cannot innately understand human speech. Rather, they understand programming languages, which give them a set of instructions on how to act.

NLP acts as a translator of sorts between humans and machines. Humans can simply speak or write normally and NLP translates that language into a form that a machine—such as the personal assistant on your smartphone—can readily understand and act on. As a result, NLP allows humans to give instructions to machines without any programming knowledge required.

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