Natural language user interface

Natural language user interfaces (LUI or NLUI) are a type of computer human interface where linguistic phenomena such as verbs, phrases and clauses act as UI controls for creating, selecting and modifying data in software applications.

In interface design natural language interfaces are sought after for their speed and ease of use, but most suffer the challenges to understanding wide varieties of ambiguous input.[1] Natural language interfaces are an active area of study in the field of natural language processing and computational linguistics. An intuitive general natural language interface is one of the active goals of the Semantic Web.

Text interfaces are "natural" to varying degrees. Many formal (un-natural) programming languages incorporate idioms of natural human language. Likewise, a traditional keyword search engine could be described as a "shallow" natural language user interface.


A natural language search engine would in theory find targeted answers to user questions (as opposed to keyword search). For example, when confronted with a question of the form 'which U.S. state has the highest income tax?', conventional search engines ignore the question and instead search on the keywords 'state', 'income' and 'tax'. Natural language search, on the other hand, attempts to use natural language processing to understand the nature of the question and then to search and return a subset of the web that contains the answer to the question. If it works, results would have a higher relevance than results from a keyword search engine.


Prototype Nl interfaces had already appeared in the late sixties and early seventies.[2]


Natural language interfaces have in the past led users to anthropomorphize the computer, or at least to attribute more intelligence to machines than is warranted. On the part of the user, this has led to unrealistic expectations of the capabilities of the system. Such expectations will make it difficult to learn the restrictions of the system if users attribute too much capability to it, and will ultimately lead to disappointment when the system fails to perform as expected as was the case in the AI winter of the 1970s and 80s.

A 1995 paper titled 'Natural Language Interfaces to Databases – An Introduction', describes some challenges:[2]

Modifier attachment
The request "List all employees in the company with a driving licence" is ambiguous unless you know that companies can't have driving licences.
Conjunction and disjunction
"List all applicants who live in California and Arizona" is ambiguous unless you know that a person can't live in two places at once.
Anaphora resolution
resolve what a user means by 'he', 'she' or 'it', in a self-referential query.

Other goals to consider more generally are the speed and efficiency of the interface, in all algorithms these two points are the main point that will determine if some methods are better than others and therefore have greater success in the market. In addition, localisation across multiple language sites requires extra consideration - this is based on differing sentence structure and language syntax variations between most languages.

Finally, regarding the methods used, the main problem to be solved is creating a general algorithm that can recognize the entire spectrum of different voices, while disregarding nationality, gender or age. The significant differences between the extracted features - even from speakers who says the same word or phrase - must be successfully overcome.

Uses and applications

The natural language interface gives rise to technology used for many different applications.

Some of the main uses are:

Below are named and defined some of the applications that use natural language recognition, and so have integrated utilities listed above.


Main article: Ubiquity (Firefox)

Ubiquity, an add-on for Mozilla Firefox, is a collection of quick and easy natural-language-derived commands that act as mashups of web services, thus allowing users to get information and relate it to current and other webpages.

Wolfram Alpha

Main article: Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha is an online service that answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured data, rather than providing a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer as a search engine would.[6] It was announced in March 2009 by Stephen Wolfram, and was released to the public on May 15, 2009.[7]


Main article: Siri (software)

Siri is an intelligent personal assistant application integrated with operating system iOS. The application uses natural language processing to answer questions and make recommendations.

Siri's marketing claims include that it adapts to a user's individual preferences over time and personalizes results, and performs tasks such as making dinner reservations while trying to catch a cab.[8]


Screenshot of GNOME DO classic interface.

See also


  1. Hill, I. (1983). "Natural language versus computer language." In M. Sime and M. Coombs (Eds.) Designing for Human-Computer Communication. Academic Press.
  2. 1 2 Natural Language Interfaces to Databases – An Introduction, I. Androutsopoulos, G.D. Ritchie, P. Thanisch, Department of Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh
  3. Chat-80 demo
  4. ELIZA demo
  5. Galitsky, Boris (2003). Natural Language Question Answering: technique of semantic headers. Adelaide, Australia: Advance Knowledge International. ISBN 0868039799.
  6. Johnson, Bobbie (2009-03-09). "British search engine 'could rival Google'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-03-09.
  7. "So Much for A Quiet Launch". Wolfram Alpha Blog. 2009-05-08. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  8. Siri webpage
  9. Braina
  11. if we are holding hands whose hand am i holding
  12. Ubuntu 10.04 Add/Remove Applications description for GNOME Do
  13. Helft, Miguel (May 12, 2008). "Powerset Debuts With Search of Wikipedia". The New York Times.
  14. Johnson, Mark (July 1, 2008). "Microsoft to Acquire Powerset". Powerset Blog. Archived from the original on February 25, 2009.
  15. Humphries, Matthew. " steps into the search market" 31 July 2009.
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