With an analogy to robotics, I've seen two different approaches. The first is to develop humanoid robots. The second is to develop robots that enhance human performance. The former supplants a human (eg., the long awaited robot butler); the latter augments a human. There are parallels in many AI fields.
What about NLP?
I would say that most NLP research aims to supplant humans. Machine translation puts translators out of work. Summarization puts summarizers out of work (though there aren't as many of these). Information extraction puts (one form of) information analysts out of work. Parsing puts, well... hrm...
There seems actually to be quite little in the way of trying to augment human capabilities. Web search might be one such area, though this is only tenuously an "NLP" endeavor. Certainly there is a reasonable amount of work in translation assistance: essentially fancy auto-completion for translators. Some forms of IE might look like this: find all the names, coreferenceify them and then present "interesting" results to a real human analyst who just doesn't have time to look through all the documents... though this looks to me like a fancy version of some IR task that happens to use IE at the bottom.
Where else might NLP technology be used to augment, rather than supplant?
- A student here recently suggested the following. When learning a new language, you are often reading an encounter unknown words. These words could be looked up in a dictionary and described in a little pop-up window. Of course, if the definition (hopefully sense-disambiguated) itself contains unknown words, you'd need to recurse. He then suggested a similar model for reading Wikipedia pages: tell Wikipedia everything you know and then have it regenerate the "variational EM" page explaining things that you don't know about (again, recursively). This could either be interactive or not. Wikipedia is nice here because you can probably look up most things that a reader might not know via internal Wikipedia links.
- Although really a field of IR, there's the whole interactive track at TREC that essentially aims for an interactive search experience, complete with suggestions, refinements, etc.
- I can imagine electronic tutorials that automatically follow your progress in some task (eg., learning to use photoshop) and auto-generate text explaining parts where you seem to be stuck, rather than just providing you with random, consistent advice. (Okay, this starts to sound a bit like our mutual enemy clippy... but I suspect it could actually be done well, especially if it were really in the context of learning.)
- Speaking of learning, someone (I don't even remember anymore! Sorry!) suggested the following talk to me a while ago. When trying to learn a foreign language, there could be some proxy server you go through that monitors when you are reading pages in this language that you want to learn. It can keep track of what you know and offer mouseover suggestions for words you don't know. This is a bit like the first suggestion above.
One big "problem" with working on such problems is that you then cannot avoid actually doing user studies, and we all know how much we love doing this in NLP these days.