You make me feel like a natural language

The expression natural language seems to be going mainstream. It is shifting from a more technical application (natural L versus programming L) in the domain of the computer modeling and processing of ‘human’ languages (natural language processing) and now includes the concepts of ‘informal’ and ‘un-controlled’; the sort of thing you say spontaneously when speaking in everyday contexts. As it happens, typing a ‘natural’ style of language query into a search engine is usually a far more longwinded and less ‘natural’ process than it is to keyboard in a medley of isolated nouns, adjectives and verbs and hope for the best. Humans are pretty good at tailoring language to the demands of speed and effectiveness, witness the archetypal ‘unnatural’ communication style of the telegram.

One area where this new “natural language” agenda is popping up like fungi in the fall is in the field of search technology. Search’s cutting edge is clearly moving towards giving “natural language” answers to “natural language” queries, rather than plunking a list of highlighted documents in front of you for perusal. On the mobile front, the private German firm Linguit has rolled out its Nuggets program, which delivers automatic answers (by trawling websites) to questions sent in SMS over mobile phones. This is certainly one up from the Any Questions Answered service, also launched in the UK, which uses human agents to prepare the answers to queries and SMS them back to the sender. So far, these services seem primarily targeted at players of quiz games.

On the desktop front, watch out for yet another new search engine called Stochasto that will also be able to answer questions in, yes, “natural language” rather than return documents. Apparently there is already a Russian version of this operating, and although registered in Norway, the company appears to be driven by Russian language tech skills. It’s interesting to note that FAST, the real time search and filter company, was also started up in Norway.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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