June 19, 2024


Super Technology

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


Facing an audience at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, Iceland’s president, Guðni Jóhannesson, asked Siri if she spoke Icelandic. Apple’s voice assistant didn’t have an answer for that.

He turned instead to Embla, a prototype of similar speech recognition technology that is designed to show users what it would be like to talk to their “phones and refrigerators and cars” in Icelandic, a language that many technologies today don’t understand. 

Embla knows that Jóhannesson is the president of Iceland and knows his wife’s name, but she doesn’t know the distance between Seattle and San Jose, California – information that would have been helpful as Jóhannesson prepared for a visit to the U.S. this week.

The prototype is part of a wider 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 Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Meta and others will program their tools to understand more languages, preserving the linguistic heritage of countries while opening up the benefits of Alexa and Siri to a wider group of people.

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

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

Jóhannesson visited Seattle Thursday to raise awareness about the campaign, speaking at the Nordic Innovation Summit alongside engineers from Microsoft and Amazon. The summit, hosted 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 the preservation of language, Jóhannesson said, “We have an island up there in the North Atlantic where people are not necessarily fluent in English. … If we cherish and promote technologies that rely on voice command, we must make sure that this positive development for the vast majority of people doesn’t leave some people out.”

The conversation about saving languages from “digital death” has been swirling since at least 2013, when prominent linguist András Kornai found less than 5% of languages in use existed online at that time. In a paper published in the journal PLOS One, Kornai warned the internet may be speeding up the death of some dialects.

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

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

At Microsoft and Amazon, engineers 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 Nikko Ström, a scientist at Amazon. Microsoft is working on pretrained models that span hundreds of languages at once, using the structure of one language to understand the similarities in smaller languages, according to Microsoft engineer Arul Menezes.

Microsoft incorporated Icelandic as the 62nd language for its translator technology. Now, it can understand about 111 of the more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world.

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

Working to keep Icelandic alive, researchers in Iceland started to create a database, pulling audio clips from speeches in parliament and asking residents to record themselves. Armed with the database, Jóhannesson hopes the tech companies will take over the programming and development.

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

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

Jóhannesson has visited Seattle before, to see the National Nordic Museum. This time, he brought a cohort of about 10 people, including the minister of culture and business affairs, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and experts on speech recognition. “We travel light but we have a big message,” he said.

Jóhannesson is also hoping to bring attention to his country’s growing tech sector. There, companies are working on geothermal energy, more sustainable approaches to fishing, and even using fish skin for healing purposes.

“In all these fields, we have come with a purpose of telling people we are there, we have interesting companies,” Jóhannesson said. “Iceland is a small nation, but it does mean, sometimes, things can be done faster.”


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