What is Natural Language Processing?
Engineering + Humanities: The power of speech
Natural Language Processing is bridging the gap between computers and humans – and creating job opportunities for engineers with a knack for language.
At Google’s annual developer conference in May this year, the demonstration of Google Assistant phoning a hair salon and restaurant to make bookings blew the audience away.
The field of computer science that has led us here is called Natural Language Processing (NLP), a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which aims – among other things – to improve communication between computers and humans.
“We know language is the main tool for communication, so having a computer process what we say or write and finally provide us with meaningful answers is not only very exciting but also useful,” says Chakaveh Saedi, who is doing a PhD in NLP at Macquarie University, working on ‘authorship attribution’.
That is, applying machine learning to identify the author behind a piece of text based on its unique characteristics.
“I’ve always been interested in AI, in seeing how systems are designed to behave or act similarly to humans,” says Chakaveh, who studied hardware engineering as an undergraduate in Tehran, before diving into her Masters.
It’s cool that computers have the ability to speak our language, but… it’s also important for us to speak theirs. That’s where engineers come in, explains Associate Professor Mark Dras from Macquarie University’s Machine Learning-NLP research group.
“To understand what’s going on you need to have an understanding of the kinds of maths taught in engineering,” says Mark. At the same time, an insight into linguistics is also important. “That’s where humanities training is useful,” he says.
AI job opportunities are growing by the day, with high-profile players like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon vying for NLP researchers and engineers to join their companies.
“What used to be science fiction is coming into being now as AI enters our everyday lives,” says Mark. “It’s careers opening up at the intersection of traditional disciplines, like engineering and humanities, that are making it happen.”
– Gemma Chilton
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“What used to be science fiction is coming into being now as AI enters our everyday lives”
ENG + HUMANITIES
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