Pullum’s NLP Lament: More Sleight of Hand Than Fact by Christopher Phipps.
From the post:
My first reading of both of Pullum’s recent NLP posts (one and two) interpreted them to be hostile, an attack on a whole field (see my first response here). Upon closer reading, I see Pullum chooses his words carefully and it is less of an attack and more of a lament. He laments that the high-minded goals of early NLP (to create machines that process language like humans do) has not been reached, and more to the point, that commercial pressures have distracted the field from pursuing those original goals, hence they are now neglected. And he’s right about this to some extent.
But, he’s also taking the commonly used term “natural language processing” and insisting that it NOT refer to what 99% of people who use the term use it for, but rather only a very narrow interpretation consisting of something like “computer systems that mimic human language processing.” This is fundamentally unfair.
In the 1980s I was convinced that computers would soon be able to simulate the basics of what (I hope) you are doing right now: processing sentences and determining their meanings.
I feel Pullum is moving the goal posts on us when he says “there is, to my knowledge, no available system for unaided machine answering of free-form questions via general syntactic and semantic analysis” [my emphasis]. Pullum’s agenda appears to be to create a straw-man NLP world where NLP techniques are only admirable if they mimic human processing. And this is unfair for two reasons.
If there is unfairness in this discussion, it is the insistence by Christopher Phipps (and others) that Pullum has invented “…a straw-man NLP world where NLP techniques are only admirable if they mimic human processing.”
On the contrary, it was 1949 when Warren Weaver first proposed computers as the solution to world-wide translation problems. Weaver’s was not the only optimistic projection of language processing by computers. Those have continued up to and including the Semantic Web.
Yes, NLP practitioners such as Christopher Phipps use NLP in a more precise sense than Pullum. And NLP as defined by Phipps has too many achievements to easily list.
Neither one of those statements takes anything away from Pullum’s point that Google found a “sweet spot” between machine processing and human intelligence for search purposes.
What other insights Pullum has to offer may be obscured by the “…circle the wagons…” attitude from linguists.
Disagreement != Danger.