The Blog of Ian Mercer.

C# Natural Language Engine connected to Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 Online

In an earlier post I discussed some ideas around a Semantic CRM.

Recently I've been doing some clean up work on my C# Natural Language Engine and decided to do a quick test connecting it to a real CRM. As you may know from reading my blog, this natural language engine is already heavily used in my home automation system to control lights, sprinklers, HVAC, music and more and to query caller ID logs and other information.

I recently refactored it to use the Autofac dependency injection framework and in the process realized just how close my NLP engine is to ASP.NET MVC 3 in its basic structure and philosophy! To use it you create Controller classes and put action methods in them. Those controller classes use Autofac to get all of the dependencies they may need (services like an email service, a repository, a user service, an HTML email formattting service, ...) and then the methods in them represents a specific sentence parse using the various token types that the NLP engine supports. Unlike ASP.NET MVC3 there is no Route registration; the method itself represents the route (i.e. sentence structure) that it used to decide which method to call. Internally my NLP engine has its own code to match incoming words and phrases to tokens and then on to the action methods. In a sense the engine itself is one big dependency injection framework working against the action methods. I sometimes wish ASP.NET MVC 3 had the same route-registration-free approach to designing web applications (but also appreciate all the reasons why it doesn't).

Another improvement I made recently to the NLP Engine was to develop a connector for the Twilio SMS service. This means that my home automation system can now accept SMS messages as well as all the other communication formats it supports: email, web chat, XMPP chat and direct URL commands. My Twilio connector to NLP supports message splitting and batching so it will buffer up outgoing messages to reach the limit of a single SMS and will send that. This lowers SMS charges and also allows responses that are longer than a single SMS message.

Using this new, improved version of my Natural Language Engine I decided to try connecting it to a CRM. I chose Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 and elected to use the strongly-typed, early-bound objects that you can generate for any instance of the CRM service. I added some simple sentences in an NLPRules project that allow you to tell it who you met, and to input some of their details. Unlike a traditional forms-based approach the user can decide what information to enter and what order to enter it in. The Natural Language Engine supports the concept of a conversation and can remember what you were discussing allowing a much more natural style of conversation that some simple rule-based engines and even allowing it to ask questions and get answers from the user.

Here's a screenshot showing a sample conversation using Google Talk (XMPP/Jabber) and the resulting CRM record in Microsoft CRM 2011 Online. You could have the same conversation over SMS or email. Click to enlarge. A natural language interface to CRM

Based on my limited testing this looks like another promising area where a truly fluent, conversational-style natural language engine could play a significant role. Note how it understands email addresses, phone numbers and such like and in code these all become strongly typed objects. Where it really excels is in temporal expressions where it can understand things like "who called on a Saturday in May last year?" and can construct an efficient SQL query from that.

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