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Natural Language Understanding: What It Is and How It Differs from NLP

Expert.ai Team - 11 April 2020

Have you ever asked: “Alexa, what’s the weather like outside?” or “Siri, how is the traffic this morning?”

If so, you would have received a data-supported answer from your personal digital assistant.

Just how can it understand that you are interested in knowing the weather in a specific location or the traffic on the exact route that you travel every morning? The answer is NLU: Natural language understanding. This artificial intelligence centered automation enables voice technology, like Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google’s Assistant, to deduce what you actually mean, regardless of the way you express it.

Natural Language Understanding (NLU) is defined by Gartner as “the comprehension by computers of the structure and meaning of human language (e.g., English, Spanish, Japanese), allowing users to interact with the computer using natural sentences”. In other words, NLU is Artificial Intelligence that uses computer software to interpret text and any type of unstructured data. NLU can digest a text, translate it into computer language and produce an output in a language that humans can understand.

NLU & NLP: What is the difference?

NLU and natural language processing (NLP) are often confused. Instead they are different parts of the same process of natural language elaboration. Indeed, NLU is a component of NLP. More precisely, it is a subset of the understanding and comprehension part of natural language processing.

Natural language understanding interprets the meaning that the user communicates and classifies it into proper intents. For example, it is relatively easy for humans who speak the same language to understand each other, although mispronunciations, choice of vocabulary or phrasings may complicate this. NLU is responsible for this task of distinguishing what is meant by applying a range of processes such as text categorization, content analysis and sentiment analysis, which enables the machine to handle different inputs.

On the other hand, natural language processing is an umbrella term to explain the whole process of turning unstructured data into structured data. NLP helps technology to engage in communication using natural human language. As a result, we now have the opportunity to establish a conversation with virtual technology in order to accomplish tasks and answer questions.

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Read also: What is Hybrid Natural Language Understanding? and Four Core Use Cases for Natural Language Understanding


Originally published January 2019, updated April 2020