Every conversation where I try to explain what exactly is my PhD about goes more or less like that: "You know Google translate? Well, NLP is the field of study that cover that kind of applications". And then we swiftly shift topics, for the great relief of everyone involved.
But it's not like NLP is so arcane and abstruse. Most of the complexity is that the field of NLP is brand new. Take for instance physics: the idea that some sort of mathematical contraption should be able to describe the motion of objects or the way light refracts through a lens is old: older than Newton, if you look into it.
In comparison, the study of linguistics, as its own thing, distinct from comparative grammar, philology or literature is generally traced back to Ferdinand de Saussure, who died roughly a century ago. The idea that you could use a machine to translate texts is even younger (right after World War II). Given how new linguistics and NLP is, you shouldn't expect the general public to be very familiar with it. We just haven't had the time to come up with easy-to-understand explanations yet.
And surely I'm going to solve this problem right away (lol).
I'm not much of a science communicator. I don't like talking to people. On the other hand, I'm not really satisfied with the current state of vulgarization in NLP and linguistics. A lot of what has been written has been written by generativists (or people who read mostly generativist papers), and it's not like this framework is without problems. Well, you'll probably hear me rant against Chomsky at some point, because that's who I am.
Another reason why I'm doing this is that public researchers should make their research available to the public. That's also one of the core tennets of the OLKi project (the ones who fund my PhD, check them out here). Yet another reason is that my folks actually want to know what my PhD is about, and what better way to do that than rant my heart out on the internet for all to see?
Anyways, here's the pitch: I'll try to go over the basics of NLP. I'll steer away from most of the technical stuff (some of it is necessary though). I'll try to be as clear and jargon-free as possible. I'll try to post at least once a week, perhaps more if I get the time, perhaps a short post if I don't get it. The goal is that whenever I'm done with this series of posts, you, poor reader who stumbled here, will have a general picture of the topic I'm studying—independently of whether or not you've had classes in linguistics, calculus, philosophy of language, and so on.
If you're still not sold: I promise there will be octopuses, talking robots, rabbits (or shapes of rabbits—who knows!), and more dimensions than even string theory has.