Moving from Natural Language Understanding (NLU) to Customer-Facing AI Assistants

natural language understanding

There can no longer be any doubt that large language models and generative AI more broadly are going to have a real impact on many industries. Though we’re still in the preliminary stages of working out the implications, the evidence so far suggests that this is already happening.

Language models in contact centers are helping to more junior workers be more productive, and reducing employee turnover in the process. They’re also being used to automate huge swathes of content creation, assisting in data augmentation tasks, and plenty else besides.

Part of the task we’ve set ourselves here at Quiq is explaining how these models are trained and how they’ll make their way into the workflows of the future. To that end, we’ve written extensively about how large language models are trained, how researchers are pushing them into uncharted territories, and which models are appropriate for any given task.

This post is another step in that endeavor. Specifically, we’re going to discuss natural language understanding, how it works, and how it’s distinct from related terms (like “natural language generation”). With that done, we’ll talk about how natural language understanding is a foundational first step and takes us closer to creating robust customer-facing AI assistants.

What is Natural Language Understanding?

Language is a tool of remarkable power and flexibility – so much so that it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that it’s at the root of everything else the human race has accomplished. From towering works of philosophy to engineering specs to instructions for setting up a remote, language is a force multiplier that makes each of us vastly more effective than we otherwise would be.

Evidence of this claim comes from the fact that, even when we’re alone, many of us think in words or even talk to ourselves as we work through something difficult. Certain kinds of thoughts are all but impossible to have without the scaffolding provided by language.

For all these reasons, creating machines able to parse natural language has long been a goal of AI researchers and computer scientists. The field that has been established to address itself to this task is known as natural language understanding.

There’s a rather deep philosophical here where the word “understanding” is concerned. As the famous story of the Tower of Babel demonstrates, it isn’t enough for the members of a group to be making sounds to accomplish great things, it’s also necessary for the people involved to understand what everyone is saying. This means that when you say a word like “chicken” there’s a response in my nervous system such that the “chicken” concept is activated, along with other contextually relevant knowledge, such as the location of the chicken feed. If you said “курица” (to someone who doesn’t know Russian) or “鸡” (to someone who doesn’t know Mandarin), the same process wouldn’t have occurred, no understanding would’ve happened, and language wouldn’t have helped at all.

Whether and how a machine can understand language fully humanly is too big a topic to address here, but we can make some broad comments. As is often the case, researchers in the field of natural language understanding have opted to break the problem down into much more tractable units. Two of the biggest such units of natural language understanding are intent recognition (what a sentence is intended to accomplish) and entity recognition (who the sentence is referring to).

This should make a certain intuitive sense. Though you may not be consciously going through a mental checklist when someone says something to you, on some level, you’re trying to figure out what their goal is and who or what they’re talking about. The intent behind the sentence “John has an apple”, for example, is to inform you of a fact about the world, and the main entities are “John” and “apple”. If you know John, a little image of him holding an apple would probably pop into your head.

This has many obvious applications to the work done in contact centers. If you’re building an automated ticket classification system, for instance, it would help to be able to tell whether the intent behind the ticket is to file a complaint, reach a representative, or perform a task like resetting a password. It would also help to be able to categorize the entities, like one of a dozen products your center supports, that are being referred to.

Natural Language Understanding v.s. Natural Language Processing

Natural language understanding is its own field, and it’s easy to confuse it with other, related fields, like natural language processing.

Most of the sources we consulted consider natural language understanding to be a subdomain of natural language processing (NLP). Whereas the former is concerned with parsing natural language into a format that machines can work with, the latter subsumes this task, along with others like machine translation and natural language generation.

Natural Language Understanding v.s. Natural Language Generation

Speaking of natural language generation, many people also confuse natural language understanding and natural language generation. Natural language generation is more or less what it sounds like using computers to generate human-sounding text or speech.

Natural language understanding can be an important part of getting natural language generation right, but they’re not the same thing.

Customer-Facing AI Assistants

Now that we’ve discussed natural language understanding, let’s talk about how it can be utilized in the attempt to create high-quality customer-facing AI assistants.

How Can Natural Language Understand Be Used to Make Customer-Facing Assistants?

Natural language understanding refers to a constellation of different approaches to decomposing language into pieces that a machine can work with. This allows an algorithm to discover the intent in a message, tag parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.), or pull out the entities referenced.

All of this is an important part of building effective customer-facing AI assistants. At Quiq, we’ve built LLM-powered knowledge assistants able to answer common questions across your reference documentation, data assistants that can use CRM and order management systems to provide actionable insights, and other kinds of conversational AI systems. Though we draw on many technologies and research areas, none of this would be possible without natural language understanding.

What are the Benefits of Customer-Facing AI Assistants?

The reason people have been working so long to create powerful customer-facing AI assistants is that there are so many benefits involved.

At a contact center, agents spend most of their day answering questions, resolving issues, and otherwise making sure a customer base can use a set of product offerings as intended.

As with any job, some of these tasks are higher-value than others. All of the work is important, but there will always be subtle and thorny issues that only a skilled human can work through, while others are quotidian and can be farmed out to a machine.

This is a long way of saying that one of the major benefits of customer-facing AI assistants is that they free up your agents to specialize at handling the most pressing requests, with password resets or something similar handled by a capable product like the Quiq platform.

A related benefit is improved customer experience. When agents can focus their efforts they can spend more time with customers who need it. And, when you have properly fine-tuned language models interacting with customers, you’ll know that they’re unfailingly polite and helpful because they’ll never become annoyed after a long shift the way a human being might.

Robust Costumer-Facing AI Assistants with Quiq

Just as understanding has been such a crucial part of the success of our species, it’ll be an equally crucial part of the success of advanced AI tooling.

One way you can make use of bleeding-edge natural language understanding techniques is by building your language models. This would require you to hire teams of extremely smart engineers. But this would be expensive; besides their hefty salaries, you’d also have to budget to keep the fridge stocked with the sugar-free Red Bulls such engineers require to function.

Or, you could utilize the division of labor. Just as contact center agents can outsource certain tasks to machines, so too can you outsource the task of building an AI-based CX platform to Quiq. Set up a demo today to see what our advanced AI technology and team can do for your contact center!

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