Iceland’s president talks Big Tech, small languages and ‘digital death’ in Seattle visit

Susan R. Jones

Going through an audience at the Nationwide Nordic Museum in Seattle, Iceland’s president, Guðni Jóhannesson, requested Siri if she spoke Icelandic. Apple’s voice assistant didn’t have an respond to for that.

He turned as a substitute to Embla, a prototype of related speech recognition technological know-how that is developed to demonstrate buyers what it would be like to converse to their “phones and fridges and cars” in Icelandic, a language that numerous technologies these days do not realize. 

Embla is aware of that Jóhannesson is the president of Iceland and is familiar with his wife’s title, but she doesn’t know the distance concerning Seattle and San Jose, California – details that would have been beneficial as Jóhannesson ready for a visit to the U.S. this week.

The prototype is element of a broader campaign to persuade tech corporations to hold languages spoken in smaller sized nations, like Iceland, in mind when developing artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Jóhannesson hopes Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Meta and other individuals will plan their instruments to realize a lot more languages, preserving the linguistic heritage of international locations whilst opening up the added benefits of Alexa and Siri to a wider group of people.

“We want to make confident that Icelandic, our thriving language, has a upcoming in the electronic age,” Jóhannesson mentioned in an job interview Wednesday.

“It’s so important that in today’s globalized planet we can, at the same time, emphasize and strengthen individual languages, specific cultures whilst we request to cooperate and operate together and shorten distances,” he mentioned.

Jóhannesson visited Seattle Thursday to raise consciousness about the campaign, speaking at the Nordic Innovation Summit together with engineers from Microsoft and Amazon. The summit, hosted at the Nationwide Nordic Museum in Ballard, involved panels on sustainable aviation, the long run of 5G and fish farming.

Throughout a panel dialogue on how technologies can affect the preservation of language, Jóhannesson explained, “We have an island up there in the North Atlantic in which people are not automatically fluent in English. … If we cherish and encourage systems that count on voice command, we ought to make guaranteed that this beneficial development for the extensive greater part of people does not depart some men and women out.”

The discussion about saving languages from “digital death” has been swirling considering the fact that at minimum 2013, when outstanding linguist András Kornai found fewer than 5% of languages in use existed on-line at that time. In a paper posted in the journal PLOS One particular, Kornai warned the world-wide-web may well be speeding up the demise of some dialects.

Now, as tech businesses and researchers proceed to create AI and voice recognition software, Jóhannesson would like to see the application recognize, method and react to far more languages. In the most simplified way, it will take a ton of programming.

“We do not appear with an unachievable task ahead of us,” he explained. “We just want to make absolutely sure that the experts get collectively.”

At Microsoft and Amazon, engineers are performing to improve the selection of languages their technological know-how can support, associates from equally organizations explained at Thursday’s event.

Amazon is concentrated on “transfer learning,” or AI in which 1 language learns from yet another, reported Nikko Ström, a scientist at Amazon. Microsoft is performing on pretrained styles that span hundreds of languages at the moment, utilizing the composition of just one language to comprehend the similarities in more compact languages, in accordance to Microsoft engineer Arul Menezes.

Microsoft included Icelandic as the 62nd language for its translator know-how. Now, it can fully grasp about 111 of the additional than 7,000 languages spoken around the environment.

Amazon’s Alexa can realize 17. Even though that number is “accelerating,”  Ström explained it will take a lot far more function to reach the subsequent batch of new Alexa consumers. The purpose, he extra, is for language technologies not to build a “bottleneck.”

Doing work to preserve Icelandic alive, researchers in Iceland started to produce a databases, pulling audio clips from speeches in parliament and asking residents to file on their own. Armed with the databases, Jóhannesson hopes the tech companies will take around the programming and growth.

“We have this and you have the know-how, and we will need to hook up the two,” he mentioned in an job interview. “We need to make positive that in all programming in the upcoming, when we look forward, we have a room for relatively compact languages like Icelandic.”

On a a few-halt U.S. tour to talk about how engineering can assist maintain languages, Jóhannesson stopped very first in California to visit executives from Meta and Apple, then Seattle, prior to heading to Boston to meet up with with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technologies.

Jóhannesson has frequented Seattle ahead of, to see the Countrywide Nordic Museum. This time, he introduced a cohort of about 10 men and women, together with the minister of society and company affairs, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and gurus on speech recognition. “We vacation light but we have a significant concept,” he claimed.

Jóhannesson is also hoping to convey notice to his country’s developing tech sector. There, providers are performing on geothermal electrical power, much more sustainable techniques to fishing, and even applying fish pores and skin for healing purposes.

“In all these fields, we have come with a reason of telling individuals we are there, we have intriguing organizations,” Jóhannesson stated. “Iceland is a small nation, but it does signify, sometimes, factors can be completed more rapidly.”

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