Learning (from) NLP

I have been studying natural language processing these days, and the feeling is, well, what’s the word I’m looking for-exhilarating. Why is studying about NLP exhilarating? It’s by no means easy, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is this: think about the language we speak. Think about its infinite richness, its poems and essays, its idioms and metaphors. Now set them aside for a moment, and think of the simplest possible sentence you can. For example: I wanna eat someplace that’s close to X. (Example is taken from Jurafsky and Martin’s). If you were a computer, stripped of any knowledge about humanity, how could you be sure that the speaker wants to eat “in” a place near X, and not that he actually wants to eat a place near X? You couldn’t be.

So, here’s the thing I have been thinking all this while: to imagine that we would be able to make computers understand our language in all its glory is a huge, huge undertaking. There are so many problems, so many stumbling blocks, so many buts, that if someone at the beginning of this task took cognizance of all these problems, he wouldn’t think it would be possible at all.

But that’s not how it is done. You don’t think about all the possible problems that could come and try to design an answer for all of them. You take the tiniest step, make a barely perceptible dent in the problem, followed by another blow followed by yet another one, and keep doing it as long as you can. Someone is going to follow you and eventually you would have bored a tunnel.

This has got nothing to do with NLP: it characterizes every human effort. People did this, that’s why we have electricity and we fly and sail and drive. That is why we have computers and laptops and iPads.

When I went to Switzerland, my tour guide told us the story about a tunnel to one of the highest mountain peaks in Europe. He said this tunnel was built without using any machines at all-entirely by hand! I don’t think it is true but it made a good story.

I imagined the man breaking stones to make that tunnel and asked him,”Why do you want to build a tunnel in the middle of nowhere?”

“I want to go to the other side”, he said.

“And why do you want to do that?” I persisted.

“Because I want to, that’s all.”

I had to shut up then.

God must be laughing his head off whenever I say never. When I am tempted to say that, or its equivalent “No way in heaven can I do that”, or “pigs will fly before that is possible”, I am going to take a moment and think about NLP and Machine Learning and GSM. It may help me go from “never” to “maybe”.

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