What is Natural Language Understanding?

Next time you're in a city, walk down the block, gaze up at the buildings, and ask yourself the question, "what are they all doing up there?"

I'll tell you what they're doing. It's thousands of professionals reading documents, finding specific pieces of information in them, copying that information into a new place, and then making a decision about it.

  • A group of paralegals, still awake at 2am, searching for a clause in a 400 page contract
  • A tractor salesman drinking coffee, scanning the local paper for new business leads
  • A Hong Kong actuary, high atop a skyscraper, reading your medical history to determine an appropriate life insurance rate
  • Your department's accountant, three cubicles down, spot-checking checking last month's invoices to make sure the totals match up
  • A local bank account manager, sitting in one of those glass-encased cubicles, completing a new account opening.

Natural Language Understanding (NLU) is all around you. We just tend to call it "work." NLU is the particular part of work in which we:

  1. read documents,
  2. locate and extract a specific piece of information in them, and
  3. use that information to make a decision

This specific part of our jobs — the find, extract, decide loop is in the midst of disruption by a new class of tools that will soon be as pervasive as the word processor.

Instead of helping us write documents, NLU tools will help us read and understand them.

In the 2010s, the largest tech companies pioneered mainstream NLU. This why today you can open a new bank account quickly on your phone, talk to your smart speakers, and ask a search engine questions about common facts.

In the 2020s, NLU will grow to touch every company of every size. How you and your team interact with documents — paper and digital — will change forever.

Now is the time to begin thinking about how these tools will impact your business, how you want to leverage them, and how to navigate road that follows. This book aims to be a useful companion in that journey.