Talking To Your Cell Phone

Content From: HIV.govPublished: November 16, 20112 min read


Young woman texting

Co-authored by Michelle Samplin-Salgado, New Media Strategist,

A day after Apple announced the new 4S iPhone, they lost their leader and visionary, Steve Jobs. We joined many others in commemorating the loss of a man whose work and vision have impacted the HIV and public health community with technology, access and communication. He helped all of us re-imagine what technology could do and how it could change our lives.

The new iPhone has been getting a lot of attention because it uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) which Apple refers to as “Siri”. NLP combines computer science and linguistics so spoken or written language can be used to help answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions online (like playing music or sending an email). The National Library of Medicine, working with the Lexical Systems Group, is just one of many agencies and organizations working with NLP for health. They have developed NLP tools to investigate the contributions that natural language processing techniques can make between the language of users and the language of online biomedical information resources. There are other examples from the National Cancer Institute and The National Office of the Controller, to name a few.

Using NLP, along with search history, location, and other information about your behavior, preferences, and personal information, these factors help guide results. It’s based on a complex algorithm that responds and “learns” from these interactions. The more you use it, the more it is able to anticipate what you are using it for.

Asking Questions About HIV

With Siri, we asked about HIV. How to find an HIV testing site? Where to get a condom? For example: Where can I get an HIV test? / Siri, I need an HIV test. / I need to be tested for AIDS.

And, we were not directed to an HIV testing site. Yet, when we asked Siri, find me a condom.

Siri: I found 16 drug stores. 13 of them are fairly close to you.‪

This is a new an emerging technology and another tool to help in our response to HIV/AIDS. There’s a lot of potential for the HIV community with NLP, the provider community, and public health in general. We have many questions for applications like this and will continue to blog on this topic. We’re looking forward to seeing how NLP evolves over time. And to be honest, we’re learning ourselves. Do you think NLP could revolutionize public health search?