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Natural language processing (NLP) is a field of computer science, artificial intelligence, and linguistics concerned with the interactions between computers and human (natural) languages. As such, NLP is related to the area of human–computer interaction. Many challenges in NLP involve natural language understanding, that is, enabling computers to derive meaning from human or natural language input, and others involve natural language generation.
The history of NLP generally starts in the 1950s, although work can be found from earlier periods. In 1950, Alan Turing published an article titled "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" which proposed what is now called the Turing test as a criterion of intelligence.
The Georgetown experiment in 1954 involved fully automatic translation of more than sixty Russian sentences into English. The authors claimed that within three or five years, machine translation would be a solved problem. However, real progress was much slower, and after the ALPAC report in 1966, which found that ten year long research had failed to fulfill the expectations, funding for machine translation was dramatically reduced. Little further research in machine translation was conducted until the late 1980s, when the first statistical machine translation systems were developed.
Some notably successful NLP systems developed in the 1960s were SHRDLU, a natural language system working in restricted "blocks worlds" with restricted vocabularies, and ELIZA, a simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist, written by Joseph Weizenbaum between 1964 to 1966. Using almost no information about human thought or emotion, ELIZA sometimes provided a startlingly human-like interaction. When the "patient" exceeded the very small knowledge base, ELIZA might provide a generic response, for example, responding to "My head hurts" with "Why do you say your head hurts?".
During the 1970s many programmers began to write 'conceptual ontologies', which structured real-world information into computer-understandable data. Examples are MARGIE (Schank, 1975), SAM (Cullingford, 1978), PAM (Wilensky, 1978), TaleSpin (Meehan, 1976), QUALM (Lehnert, 1977), Politics (Carbonell, 1979), and Plot Units (Lehnert 1981). During this time, many chatterbots were written including PARRY, Racter, and Jabberwacky.
Up to the 1980s, most NLP systems were based on complex sets of hand-written rules. Starting in the late 1980s, however, there was a revolution in NLP with the introduction of machine learning algorithms for language processing. This was due to both the steady increase in computational power resulting from Moore's Law and the gradual lessening of the dominance of Chomskyan theories of linguistics (e.g. transformational grammar), whose theoretical underpinnings discouraged the sort of corpus linguistics that underlies the machine-learning approach to language processing. Some of the earliest-used machine learning algorithms, such as decision trees, produced systems of hard if-then rules similar to existing hand-written rules. However, Part of speech tagging introduced the use of Hidden Markov Models to NLP, and increasingly, research has focused on statistical models, which make soft, probabilistic decisions based on attaching real-valued weights to the features making up the input data. The cache language models upon which many speech recognition systems now rely are examples of such statistical models. Such models are generally more robust when given unfamiliar input, especially input that contains errors (as is very common for real-world data), and produce more reliable results when integrated into a larger system comprising multiple subtasks.
Many of the notable early successes occurred in the field of machine translation, due especially to work at IBM Research, where successively more complicated statistical models were developed. These systems were able to take advantage of existing multilingual textual corpora that had been produced by the Parliament of Canada and the European Union as a result of laws calling for the translation of all governmental proceedings into all official languages of the corresponding systems of government. However, most other systems depended on corpora specifically developed for the tasks implemented by these systems, which was (and often continues to be) a major limitation in the success of these systems. As a result, a great deal of research has gone into methods of more effectively learning from limited amounts of data.
Recent research has increasingly focused on unsupervised and semi-supervised learning algorithms. Such algorithms are able to learn from data that has not been hand-annotated with the desired answers, or using a combination of annotated and non-annotated data. Generally, this task is much more difficult than supervised learning, and typically produces less accurate results for a given amount of input data. However, there is an enormous amount of non-annotated data available (including, among other things, the entire content of the World Wide Web), which can often make up for the inferior results.
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Modern NLP algorithms are based on machine learning, especially statistical machine learning. The paradigm of machine learning is different from that of most prior attempts at language processing. Prior implementations of language-processing tasks typically involved the direct hand coding of large sets of rules. The machine-learning paradigm calls instead for using general learning algorithms — often, although not always, grounded in statistical inference — to automatically learn such rules through the analysis of large corpora of typical real-world examples. A corpus (plural, "corpora") is a set of documents (or sometimes, individual sentences) that have been hand-annotated with the correct values to be learned.
Many different classes of machine learning algorithms have been applied to NLP tasks. These algorithms take as input a large set of "features" that are generated from the input data. Some of the earliest-used algorithms, such as decision trees, produced systems of hard if-then rules similar to the systems of hand-written rules that were then common. Increasingly, however, research has focused on statistical models, which make soft, probabilistic decisions based on attaching real-valued weights to each input feature. Such models have the advantage that they can express the relative certainty of many different possible answers rather than only one, producing more reliable results when such a model is included as a component of a larger system.
Systems based on machine-learning algorithms have many advantages over hand-produced rules:
The subfield of NLP devoted to learning approaches is known as Natural Language Learning (NLL) and its conference CoNLL and peak body SIGNLL are sponsored by ACL, recognizing also their links with Computational Linguistics and Language Acquisition. When the aims of computational language learning research is to understand more about human language acquisition, or psycholinguistics, NLL overlaps into the related field of Computational Psycholinguistics.
The following is a list of some of the most commonly researched tasks in NLP. Note that some of these tasks have direct real-world applications, while others more commonly serve as sub-tasks that are used to aid in solving larger tasks. What distinguishes these tasks from other potential and actual NLP tasks is not only the volume of research devoted to them but the fact that for each one there is typically a well-defined problem setting, a standard metric for evaluating the task, standard corpora on which the task can be evaluated, and competitions devoted to the specific task.
In some cases, sets of related tasks are grouped into subfields of NLP that are often considered separately from NLP as a whole. Examples include:
Other tasks include:
Statistical natural-language processing uses stochastic, probabilistic and statistical methods to resolve some of the difficulties discussed above, especially those which arise because longer sentences are highly ambiguous when processed with realistic grammars, yielding thousands or millions of possible analyses. Methods for disambiguation often involve the use of corpora and Markov models. Statistical NLP comprises all quantitative approaches to automated language processing, including probabilistic modeling, information theory, and linear algebra. The technology for statistical NLP comes mainly from machine learning and data mining, both of which are fields of artificial intelligence that involve learning from data.
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The goal of NLP evaluation is to measure one or more qualities of an algorithm or a system, in order to determine whether (or to what extent) the system answers the goals of its designers, or meets the needs of its users. Research in NLP evaluation has received considerable attention, because the definition of proper evaluation criteria is one way to specify precisely an NLP problem, going thus beyond the vagueness of tasks defined only as language understanding or language generation. A precise set of evaluation criteria, which includes mainly evaluation data and evaluation metrics, enables several teams to compare their solutions to a given NLP problem.
The first evaluation campaign on written texts seems to be a campaign dedicated to message understanding in 1987 (Pallet 1998). Then, the Parseval/GEIG project compared phrase-structure grammars (Black 1991). A series of campaigns within Tipster project were realized on tasks like summarization, translation and searching (Hirschman 1998). In 1994, in Germany, the Morpholympics compared German taggers. Then, the Senseval & Romanseval campaigns were conducted with the objectives of semantic disambiguation. In 1996, the Sparkle campaign compared syntactic parsers in four different languages (English, French, German and Italian). In France, the Grace project compared a set of 21 taggers for French in 1997 (Adda 1999). In 2004, during the Technolangue/Easy project, 13 parsers for French were compared. Large-scale evaluation of dependency parsers were performed in the context of the CoNLL shared tasks in 2006 and 2007. In Italy, the EVALITA campaign was conducted in 2007 and 2009 to compare various NLP and speech tools for Italian; the 2011 campaign is in full progress - EVALITA web site. In France, within the ANR-Passage project (end of 2007), 10 parsers for French were compared - passage web site.
Depending on the evaluation procedures, a number of distinctions are traditionally made in NLP evaluation.
Intrinsic evaluation considers an isolated NLP system and characterizes its performance mainly with respect to a gold standard result, pre-defined by the evaluators. Extrinsic evaluation, also called evaluation in use considers the NLP system in a more complex setting, either as an embedded system or serving a precise function for a human user. The extrinsic performance of the system is then characterized in terms of its utility with respect to the overall task of the complex system or the human user. For example, consider a syntactic parser that is based on the output of some new part of speech (POS) tagger. An intrinsic evaluation would run the POS tagger on some labelled data, and compare the system output of the POS tagger to the gold standard (correct) output. An extrinsic evaluation would run the parser with some other POS tagger, and then with the new POS tagger, and compare the parsing accuracy.
Black-box evaluation requires one to run an NLP system on a given data set and to measure a number of parameters related to the quality of the process (speed, reliability, resource consumption) and, most importantly, to the quality of the result (e.g. the accuracy of data annotation or the fidelity of a translation). Glass-box evaluation looks at the design of the system, the algorithms that are implemented, the linguistic resources it uses (e.g. vocabulary size), etc. Given the complexity of NLP problems, it is often difficult to predict performance only on the basis of glass-box evaluation, but this type of evaluation is more informative with respect to error analysis or future developments of a system.
In many cases, automatic procedures can be defined to evaluate an NLP system by comparing its output with the gold standard (or desired) one. Although the cost of producing the gold standard can be quite high, automatic evaluation can be repeated as often as needed without much additional costs (on the same input data). However, for many NLP problems, the definition of a gold standard is a complex task, and can prove impossible when inter-annotator agreement is insufficient. Manual evaluation is performed by human judges, which are instructed to estimate the quality of a system, or most often of a sample of its output, based on a number of criteria. Although, thanks to their linguistic competence, human judges can be considered as the reference for a number of language processing tasks, there is also considerable variation across their ratings. This is why automatic evaluation is sometimes referred to as objective evaluation, while the human kind appears to be more "subjective."
An ISO sub-committee is working in order to ease interoperability between lexical resources and NLP programs. The sub-committee is part of ISO/TC37 and is called ISO/TC37/SC4. Some ISO standards are already published but most of them are under construction, mainly on lexicon representation (see LMF), annotation and data category registry.
NLP research is gradually shifting from lexical semantics to compositional semantics and, further on, narrative understanding. Human-level natural language processing, however, is an AI-complete problem. That is, it is equivalent to solving the central artificial intelligence problem—making computers as intelligent as people, or strong AI. NLP's future is therefore tied closely to the development of AI in general.