Natural Language Processing is Entering the Business World

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My company uses Concur for travel management, and I am quite happy with their tools. One feature struck my immediate interest, which is their use of natural language processing/understanding (NLU/NLP). Ever since Apple introduced Siri to the mass market, speech assistants have gained public interest. Microsoft came out with Cortana recently. Google has Google Now, even though I wouldn’t necessarily qualify that as an assistant with its typical characteristics (dialog-based, traits of a character, etc.) at this point. However, Siri does not have a text-based interface, and I do occasionally miss that feature.

While I can do a quick restaurant or movie ticket reservation by saying “two tickets for Transformers at AMC tonight”, which fills the fields of the virtual “form” automatically for me (movie title, number of tickets, location, time), I cannot type the same. Would I want to? Heck yes! Natural language is such a natural interface for us humans, much more natural than filling in forms with isolated pieces of information. And well, sometimes I just can’t speak, unless I want to draw everyone’s attention to me in that boring meeting I’m attending…

Concur gives me the following dreaded form that all of us have seen, of which a number of fields are typically irrelevant for me:

What you might have overseen is the text field at the top. That one is a natural language inquiry field. Check this out:

With one simple sentence I gave it all the data it needs to know for my booking, and it is smart enough to assign the values to the respective fields for me. One further click on a button and I can review my flight options. Quite honestly, I experience this as a much more convenient UX than the good old form filling approach.

If you’re a user of Concur, do give it a try! It works just as fine with hotel or car reservations. Natural language understanding, speech OR text-based, is the next big UI, and it’s time to start exploring its use cases. (By the way, it’s great to see businesses deploy consumer-style technology. Not too long ago, this used to happen the other way around, when innovation came from the business world and got introduced to consumers later…)

Why the iWatch could truly be “the next big thing”

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Apple’s first wearable device will likely feature health tracking functions that will advance this technology and push adoption, much like what the company accomplished for speech recognition through Siri. While rumors are somewhat contradicting, the device purportedly called iWatch MIGHT have an opto-electronic sensor to measure blood glucose levels constantly. Now if that is true, then I have no doubt that Apple will stay the world’s most valuable company for quite some time. 

Tens of millions of Americans have diabetes today, numbers are growing. It doesn’t look much better across the globe. If I could see my glucose levels on my wrist constantly (right next to the time and my next appointment), without needing to withdraw blood every time I want to measure it (as diabetics do it today), then that would increase my chances of a longer life substantially. I would learn the impact of certain food on my glucose levels much quicker than I realistically can today, and accordingly I could adjust my insulin dosis much more accurately. A quick look at my watch 2 hours after lunch would tell me how those carbs I ate kicked up my glucose levels. At the end of the day, we’re all humans, and humans are lazy. Yes, one can measure glucose levels frequently today, but it takes discipline to do that to the extent one should. 

It would not only benefit diabetics, though. Seeing the impact of that bag of chips or glass of coke on your blood glucose levels, blood oxygen levels and blood pressure, just by looking at your watch, would help ANYONE understand the digestive system better and make us change our self-destructive habits that the food industry has taught us over the decades. The impact of that empowerment on our overall health and the health insurance system as a whole would be tremendous. It could save the public healthcare sector billions. The estimated total economic cost of diagnosed diabetes in 2012 was $245 billion, a 41% increase from 2007.

I don’t know if those rumors about the Apple wearable are true. But I understand why Apple is going in that direction. The move could, once again, disrupt an entire industry and impact our lives the same way the introduction of the iPhone, the first “consumer smartphone”, did in 2007. Time to stock up on Apple stock folks!

Samsung’s Smart TV Voice Control Sucks. As Expected.

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I bought myself one of Samsung’s new Smart TVs the other day. I’ve been using the voice feature for a while and must say, I’m pretty disappointed. Or not so much disappointed, as I was somehow expecting the voice implementation to be way subpar. And boy it is.

I’ve been using Siri for a while now, so I know how a well-implemented voice interface can look like. (Even though I’m not 100% happy with Siri either, which I will write about later). Samsung’s promise is to control your TV simply with your voice. The obvious functions would be volume&channel control, and powering the device on and off.

Let’s start with the volume. The TV can go up to volume 100, but the voice interface only allows you to control volume levels up to 20. That’s just silly and makes it pretty much useless. Furthermore, the recognition of the numbers is pretty inaccurate. When wanting to control the volume relatively, you can say “volume up” and “volume down”, but that will change the level in increments of 1, which again is pretty silly, as that will hardly make any difference. Jumps of 5 or 10 (or configurable increments) would’ve made way more sense.

Let’s move on to channel switching. In a typical set up with a digital DVR or some other external device feeding in the TV content, the channel function obviously doesn’t work at all. You’re not using the channels of the TV, rather the channel lineup of your DVR. The channel switching function therefore is rendered completely obsolete. Even if you use the TV channel lineup, you can only say numeric channel numbers, not the channel names. Again, that is very silly.

Turning the TV on and off works reasonably well. No complaints there. (On the other hand, as you usually have to turn on your DVR as well, you have to reach out to a remote control either way, in which case you might as well hit the button on your TV control as well).

What else can you do? You can control the source for the signal (to switch between the different HDMI inputs). That’s a good idea, however, the implementation again is suboptimal. You first have to say “Hi TV” to turn on voice control. Then “source”, then wait it to be recognized, then “source 2″ or “source 3″ etc., instead of simply saying “source 2″ or “source 3″ right away. So it makes you go through two commands instead of one (or rather: 3, instead of 2). Needless to say how silly that is.

I could go on like that, but I think you get the idea. The voice feature in the end is pretty useless. And I do understand the challenges with a room microphone versus one that is close to your face, but still, don’t advertise a functioning smart TV if it is not functioning, and not very smart. (And I’m not even talking about the gesture control, which is another pretty useless feature).

I can’t wait for Apple to come out with a really smart TV. That will be the next device category that they could revolutionize completely (and will, if they try, no doubt about that). Go on, Apple, it’s your turn.

PS: I almost completely dictated this post using Siri on my iPad, sometimes whole paragraphs at once, with only a few edits necessary.
PPS: I’m not an Apple fanatic. But I am impressed with a company that turns around 3 industries in a timeframe of a few years (MP3 players, cell phones & mobile carriers, and tablet PCs). And I appreciate a company that “gets” how important usability is these days.
PPPS: I love the picture quality of the TV; overall, I would probably give this device 4/5 on Amazon. I didn’t buy it for voice&gesture control, but for bright HD, good 3D, and picture quality, which is where it excels.
PPPPS: If anyone from the Samsung product team reads this and wants to rectify any false observations, I’d be happy to adjust my post and retweet.