Natural Language and Computer Programs

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Natural Language and Computer Programs

Anyone who has tried to explain the workings of a computer, or even a VCR, to an older relative has a very good idea of why natural language operation is a goal of computer science researchers. Simply put, most people have no desire to learn a computer language in order to use their electronic devices. In order to allow people to effectively use computer-based systems, those systems must be programmed to understand natural language – the language a regular person speaks – and respond in kind.

Most natural language-processing systems break that task down into two parts, comprehension and production. Some systems, like the search engine ask.com, where the user types in a whole interrogative sentence instead of a few terms to search for, are programmed to take commands in English and so have comprehension as their goal. Others, particularly those designed to pass the test proposed by Alan Turing in which a computer must pass as a human in conversation with an interrogator, are designed to simply produce realistic responses, sometimes without bothering to break down the input at all.

For the purposes of simplicity, most natural language programs operate through typed input and printed or on-screen output, since speech recognition and production are just complications at this point and can always be integrated later, simply by having the program convert the speech to text and vice-versa. By working only with typed input, a whole host of obstacles to understanding are avoided. People, when speaking, have accents, slur words, change sentence structure mid-thought, stick in “like” anywhere they want, and do many other things that make everyday speech much less straightforward than the slightly more formal process of typing. Even typed, however, an English sentence is not an easy thing to parse.

An example of this difficulty can be seen in the sentence “I left a job for my wife”. Out of context, it is impossible to determine which of two possible meanings is the correct one. Did the speaker leave a job (i.e. quit) because of his wife, or did he leave a job (i.e. let one remain) for his wife? A computer must be able to refer to the context around such a sentence in order to extract the meaning from it.
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