Understanding supervised vs. unsupervised nature of NLP

  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) has revolutionised the way machines interact with human language, powering applications ranging from virtual assistants to machine translation.
  • One of the fundamental questions in NLP is whether it primarily relies on supervised or unsupervised learning techniques. However, the reality is more complex, as both approaches play essential roles in different NLP tasks.
  • The question of whether NLP is supervised or unsupervised is not a binary one; rather, it’s a spectrum with various tasks falling along different points.

Unsupervised NLP and Supervised NLP play key roles in the success and growth of AI. Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a subset of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that specialises in natural language interactions between computers and humans.

NLP is extensively used by today’s Conversational AI, AI Chatbots and AI Assistant Technologies to process, analyse, understand, and respond to an input user utterance expressed in natural language either as text via a chat interface or voice via an AI voice bot. Supervised learning dominates in tasks with ample labeled data, while unsupervised learning shines in scenarios where labeled data is scarce or absent. Hybrid approaches that blend the strengths of both paradigms offer exciting avenues for future research and innovation in NLP.

Also read: The difference between Conversational AI and GenAI                              

What is supervised AI learning?

AI virtual assistants trained using supervised learning rely on well-labeled data during training to learn the mapping function between input and output. This learned mapping is then used to predict outputs for unseen input data. However, achieving high performance requires extensive optimisation and sufficient labeled data. Despite their precision, these models are limited by the availability of labeled data for training. Building, scaling, and maintaining accurate models require expertise from skilled data scientists. Common tasks, like intent classification, demonstrate the effectiveness of supervised learning, but its coverage is restricted to classes with available labeled data.

Also read: Exploring the best conversational AI platforms

Concept of unsupervised learning

To address the limitations of Supervised Learning, both academia and industry have turned to Unsupervised Learning. Unlike Supervised Learning, Unsupervised Learning doesn’t require labeled data or human supervision, making it more accessible and cost-effective. Unsupervised models autonomously uncover patterns and structures within unlabeled data, making them well-suited for NLP tasks where labeled datasets are scarce or expensive to obtain. This autonomy allows Unsupervised NLP to excel in discovering information and patterns directly from the data itself.Gray area and hybrid approaches

In reality, many NLP tasks exist in a gray area between supervised and unsupervised methods. Semi-supervised learning techniques leverage both labeled and unlabeled data to improve model performance, making it particularly useful when labeled data is limited. Reinforcement learning, another hybrid approach, has been successfully applied in tasks such as dialogue generation and machine translation, where the model learns through trial and error feedback from its environment.

Challenges and future directions

Despite the progress in both supervised and unsupervised NLP, challenges remain. Supervised learning often requires large amounts of annotated data, which may not always be available or feasible to obtain. Unsupervised learning, on the other hand, faces challenges in evaluating and interpreting the learned representations. However, ongoing research in areas such as self-supervised learning, transfer learning, and multi-task learning holds promise for addressing these challenges and pushing the boundaries of NLP further.


Aria Jiang

Aria Jiang, an intern reporter at BTW media dedicated in IT infrastructure. She graduated from Ningbo Tech University. Send tips to a.jiang@btw.media

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