Natural Language Processing is All Talk

I’ve talked about Natural Language Processing (NLP) before and how it is beginning to change the BIM/GIS space. But NLP is just part of the whole solution to change how analysis is run. I look at this as three parts:

  1. Natural Language Processing
  2. Curated Datasets
  3. Dynamic Computation

NLP is understanding ontologies more than anything else. When I ask how “big” something is, what do I mean by this. Let’s abstract this away a bit.

How big is Jupiter?

One could look at this a couple ways. What is the mass of Jupiter? What is the diameter of Jupiter? What is the volume of Jupiter? Being able to figure out intent of the question is critical to having everything else work. We all remember Siri and Alexa when they first started. They were pretty good at figuring out the weather but once you got out of those canned queries all bets were off. It is the same with using NLP with BIM or GIS. How long is something? Easy! Show me all mixed-use commercial zoned space near my project? Hard. Do we know what mixed-use commercial zoning is? Do we know where my project is? That because we need to know more about the ontology of our domain. How do we do this, learn about our domain? We need lots of data to teach the NLP and then run it through a Machine Learning (ML) tool such as Amazon Comprehend to figure out the context of the data and structure it in a way the NLP can understand out intents.

As discussed above, curated data to figure out ontology is important but it’s also important to help users run analysis without understanding what they need. Imagine using Siri, but you needed to provide your own weather service to find out the current temperature? While I have many friends who would love to do this, most people just don’t care. Keep it simple and tell me how warm it is. Same with this knowledge engine we’re talking about. I want to know zoning for New York City? It should be available and ready to use. Not only that, curated so it is normalized across geographies. Asking a question in New York or Boston (while there are unique rules in every city) should’t be difficult. Having this data isn’t as sexy as the NLP, but it sure as heck makes that NLP so much better and smarter. Plus, who wants to worry about do they have the latest zoning for a city, it should always be available and on demand.

Lastly once we understand the context of the natural language query and have data to analysis, we need to run the algorithms on the question. This is what we typically think of as GIS. Rather than manually running that buffer and identity, we use AI/ML to figure out the intent of the user using the ontology and grab the data for the analysis from the curated data repository. This used to be something very special, you needed to use some monolithic tool such as ArcGIS or MapInfo to accomplish the dynamic computation. But today these algorithms are open and available to anyone. Natural language lets us figure out what the user is asking and then run the correct analysis, even if they call it something different from what a GIS person might.
The “Alexa-like” natural language demos where the computer talks to users is fun, but much like the AR examples we see these days, not really useful in the context of real world use. Who wants their computer talking to them in an open office environment? But giving users who don’t know anything about structured GIS analysis the ability to perform complex GIS analysis is the game changer. It isn’t about how many seats of some GIS program are on everyones desk but how easy these NLP/AI/ML systems can be integrated into the existing workflows or websites. That’s where I see 2019 going, GIS everywhere.