Don’t forget about the less common languages when building digital devices and software.
That was the message to local tech giants Microsoft and Amazon from the president of Iceland on his visit to Seattle this week.
“No language should be left behind,” President Guðni Jóhannesson told attendees at the Nordic Innovation Summit on Thursday. The event was held at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
Jóhannesson said he doesn’t have a problem with English — his wife is Canadian-born Eliza Reid — but that it’s important to preserve languages that are spoken by smaller populations. The nation of Iceland is roughly 366,000 people.
Jóhannesson shared his concerns during a panel with Nikko Strom, a distinguished scientist with Amazon, and Arul Menezes, a distinguished engineer with Microsoft.
Amazon’s Alexa speaks 17 languages, Strom said. Icelandic is not one of them.
The company is adding languages, but it takes time and there are some privacy challenges with language datasets, Strom said. Amazon is employing new strategies to speed up the pace. Instead of going one language at a time, it is now using machine learning and AI “where one language can learn from another language,” he said.
“We want everyone to be able to use Alexa,” Strom said. “That’s our goal.”
Jóhannesson said his country has created large databases capturing the Icelandic language that it is happy to share with technology companies for inclusion with hardware and software.
The Microsoft Translator app is conversant in 111 languages, Menezes said. That does include Icelandic, but not Sámi, which encompasses multiple languages spoken in Northern Europe.
Menezes agreed with the importance of including a diversity of languages in technology products. He noted that Microsoft has its AI for Cultural Heritage initiative, which is working to preserve endangered languages.
“Language is the basis for culture and society,” he said.
Jóhannesson also raised the issue of tech access for people with disabilities. Voice activated devices can be life changing for someone with physical limitations. Speech-to-text tools help people for who are audio impaired, while audio players assist the blind.
“We want to live in a society where nobody is left behind,” Jóhannesson said, “and technology must be a force for good.”
During a keynote talk preceding the panel, the president illustrated tech’s language limitations by conversing with Siri, Apple’s virtual personal assistant.
“Hey Siri, do you speak Icelandic?” he asked. Her response: “Hmm. I don’t have an answer for that. Is there something else I can help with?”