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Can robots speak Icelandic? They’re learning…

Artificial intelligence replacing people? Not in Iceland. In fact, a countrywide collaboration has shown just how powerful it can be when humans and machines come together.

Deloitte Iceland joined forces with language experts, university students, local communities and a robot called AIME (pronounced Amy) to bridge a gap in AI capability and give a nation a voice. And the project goes further than preserving an ancient lexicon – it has also inspired children to read.

When Deloitte Iceland introduced AIME at the country’s largest IT event, it became clear the robot, developed by colleagues in the Netherlands, lacked one essential skill: the ability to speak Icelandic. Around 376,000 people currently speak the language, so we decided to put that right. But when our team tried to educate AIME, they found the problem ran much deeper. Speech recognition technology that understood Icelandic was virtually non-existent.

Teaching tech

Our people teamed up with Almannarómur, a centre for language technology, and Reykjavik University. And their solution? Local residents would teach AIME their native tongue.

Hilma Jonsdottir, a manager in Clients & Industries, says, “In recent years, there has been a revolution in language technology and how we use our voices to control devices. The Icelandic language is in a precarious situation due to these rapid changes, so it was important to teach the technology to recognise it.”

The first step was to make sure AI software could understand everyone who spoke the language. So, with funding from the Icelandic Student Innovation fund, the Deloitte team hired university students to create a national online database – Icelandic people of all ages and genders and from all regions could voluntarily record and contribute their speech samples.

“This is a great example of how the public sector, universities and a private company can work together on something big.”

Maria Skuladottir

brand, marketing and communications director, Deloitte Iceland

Spreading the word

To generate more awareness and get the public involved in sharing their speech samples, Deloitte Iceland developed a marketing campaign with Almannarómur and Reykjavik University. Following this, Almannarómur and the university launched a reading competition for young people. Schools across Iceland took part to see which could add the most recordings to the database.

“The competition was a hit,” continues Hilma, “and it provided the bulk of the speech samples. It rallied local communities in a fun way, especially since everyone could participate on behalf of their school.

“What started as a technology project became a nationwide reading competition that encouraged children and teenagers to read out loud and contribute.”

A triumph for teamwork

The database contains more than two and half million voice samples from some 27,000 speakers – double the original goal – who have added their distinctive tones and dialects.

While there is still more mapping of the language to do, the database has become one of the foundations for building Icelandic speech recognition systems, such as screen readers for visually impaired people and live transcription services.

Maria Skuladottir, brand, marketing and communications director at Deloitte Iceland, says, “We are very proud of this project – of the impact it has had and the support it has received within our community. For the people of Iceland, it shows the great things that can be achieved when NGO’s, the public and private sectors, as well as local communities, work together.”

And AIME? The robot that kickstarted this adventure has found a forever home in Reykjavik University’s Language and Voice lab.