Icelandic president talks big tech, small languages ​​and ‘digital death’ during visit to Seattle

Facing an audience at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, Icelandic President Guðni Jóhannesson asked Siri if she spoke Icelandic. Apple’s voice assistant had no answer for this.

Instead, he turned to Embla, a prototype of similar voice-recognition technology designed to show users what it would be like to speak to their “phones, fridges and cars” in Icelandic, a language many technologies don’t understand today. today.

Embla knows Jóhannesson is the president of Iceland and knows his wife’s name, but she doesn’t know the distance from Seattle to San Jose, Calif. — information that would have been useful as Jóhannesson prepared for a visit to the United States. United States this week.

The prototype is part of a larger campaign to encourage tech companies to keep languages ​​spoken in smaller countries, like Iceland, in mind when developing artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Jóhannesson hopes that Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Meta and others will program their tools to understand more languages, preserving the linguistic heritage of countries while opening the benefits of Alexa and Siri to a wider group of people. .

“We want to make sure Icelandic, our flourishing language, has a future in the digital age,” Jóhannesson said in an interview on Wednesday.

“It is so important that in today’s globalized world we can, at the same time, emphasize and strengthen individual languages, individual cultures while seeking to cooperate and work together and shorten distances “, did he declare.

Jóhannesson traveled to Seattle on Thursday to raise awareness for the campaign, speaking at the Nordic Innovation Summit alongside engineers from Microsoft and Amazon. The summit, held at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard, included panels on sustainable aviation, the future of 5G and fish farming.

During a panel discussion on how technology can influence language preservation, Jóhannesson said, “We have an island up there in the North Atlantic where people aren’t necessarily fluent in English. … If we cherish and promote technologies that rely on voice control, we must ensure that this positive development for the vast majority of people does not exclude some people.

The conversation about saving languages ​​from “digital death” has been swirling since at least 2013, when prominent linguist András Kornai discovered that less than 5% of languages ​​in use existed online at that time. In an article published in the journal PLOS One, Kornai warned that the internet could hasten the death of certain dialects.

Now, as tech companies and researchers continue to develop AI and speech recognition software, Jóhannesson would like to see software understand, process and respond to more languages. In the simplest way, it will take a lot of programming.

“We don’t come with an impossible task ahead of us,” he said. “We just have to make sure the experts come together.”

Engineers at Microsoft and Amazon are working to increase the number of languages ​​their technology can support, representatives from both companies said at Thursday’s event.

Amazon is focused on “transfer learning,” or AI, where one language learns from another, said Amazon scientist Nikko Ström. Microsoft is working on pre-trained models that cover hundreds of languages ​​at once, using the structure of one language to understand similarities in smaller languages, according to Microsoft engineer Arul Menezes.

Microsoft incorporated Icelandic as 62n/a language for its translation technology. Today, it can understand about 111 of the more than 7,000 languages ​​spoken around the world.

Amazon’s Alexa can understand 17. As that number “accelerates,” Ström said it will take a lot more work to reach the next batch of new Alexa users. The goal, he added, is that the language technology does not create a “bottleneck”.

Working to keep Icelandic alive, Icelandic researchers began creating a database, extracting audio clips from speeches in parliament and asking residents to register. Armed with the database, Jóhannesson hopes tech companies will take over the programming and development.

“We have that and you have the know-how, and we have to connect the two,” he said in an interview. “We need to make sure that in all programming going forward, when we look to the future, we have space for quite small languages ​​like Icelandic.”

On a three-stop U.S. tour to talk about how technology can help preserve languages, Jóhannesson first stopped in California to visit executives from Meta and Apple, then Seattle. , before traveling to Boston to meet with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jóhannesson once visited Seattle to see the National Nordic Museum. This time he brought a cohort of around 10 people, including the Minister for Culture and Business, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and voice recognition experts. “We travel light but we have a big message,” he said.

Jóhannesson also hopes to draw attention to his country’s growing tech sector. Companies there are working on geothermal energy, more sustainable approaches to fishing, and even using fish skin for therapeutic purposes.

“In all of these areas, we came with the intention of telling people that we are here, we have interesting businesses,” Jóhannesson said. “Iceland is a small nation, but that means sometimes things can be done faster.”

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