Natural Language Processing During COVID-19

By Kathy Xing

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

According to Wolters Kluwer, a Dutch American information services company, as many as a quarter of all organizations have incorporated a robot that imitates human conversation, be it a chatbot or a virtual assistant. Natural language processing (NLP) is a type of artificial intelligence meant to understand and mimic human conversational cadences. Today, NLP has various applications in predictive word suggestions and in voice-activated assistants such as Alexa and Siri. However, these purposes of NLP have found new applications during the global pandemic of COVID-19.
During this time, quick access to accurate information is crucial. NLP is able to facilitate the spread of up-to-date information and guidelines regarding the virus because of its applications in accurately translating content into the world’s many languages, especially when it comes to key phrases. Currently, platforms like Google Translate only support translations to 109 languages at various levels. However, on his blog, Daniel Whitenack, a data scientist with a PhD in Mathematical and Computational Physics from Purdue University, describes working with colleagues at SIL International to use Multilingual Unsupervised and Supervised Embeddings (MUSE), a Python library that utilizes multilingual word embeddings to enable NLP training across many languages, to ultimately translate the phrase “wash your hands” into 544 languages. For specifics on this process, follow the below link to Daniel Whitenack’s blog.
Aside from translation, NLP has also impacted access to and spread of information by assisting people’s search for answers regarding COVID-19. Various interfaces to answer COVID-19-related searches have been developed, such as covidsearch by researchers from Korea University and covidex by researchers from the University of Waterloo and NYU. These interfaces answer COVID-19-related questions based on CORD-19, the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset.

Finally, NLP has played a role in public health official’s responses to COVID-19. According to Health IT Analytics, researchers gathered 95,000 posts on a popular COVID-19 Reddit thread and identified 50 different discussion topics using NLP. By using NLP to track popular topics, leaders can better understand public health concerns and priorities as well as address community concerns. Real-time monitoring of platforms such as Reddit can enable faster responses to the various COVID-19-related questions of the general public. Furthermore, similar online platforms have been a source of misinformation regarding COVID-19. Better monitoring of these platforms means that public health officials can better combat and mitigate the spread of misinformation.
Overall, NLP has been applied regarding the spread of information in order to help combat COVID-19. It has played a role in providing people with information globally through accurate translations, answering commonly-searched questions regarding the virus, and gathering information about public discussion of the virus. The way NLP has been quickly applied only furthers the importance of NLP and the role it increasingly has on modern society.
Wolters Kluwer
Daniel Whitenack’s blog,
Health IT Analytics