Language Technology News – Iceland

Even though language technology work in Iceland started around the turn of the century, I think it is fair to say that Iceland’s participation in META-NET was a landmark in Icelandic language technology. The White Paper on Icelandic highlighted the alarming status of Icelandic language technology. Icelandic was one of only four languages receiving the lowest score in all four categories that were evaluated. At that time, the prospects of Icelandic LT were not good.

Following the publication of the White Paper, we started extensive lobbying and propaganda for Icelandic LT. In recent years, the prospective future of the Icelandic language has become the subject of much discussion in Iceland and even internationally. A number of influential newspapers have recently published articles on Icelandic in the digital age. These articles emphasize the threats that the digital revolution poses for Icelandic and other small languages.

We have made efforts to establish contacts with the big international IT companies in order to try to persuade them to include Icelandic in their products. Last year, the President of Iceland visited Microsoft headquarters in Seattle, accompanied by representatives from Language technology, both from academia and the private sector. On that occasion, Microsoft announced that Icelandic had been added to Microsoft Translator, which the President is testing here.

However, the campaign has of course mainly been fought within Iceland. The alarming results of the White Paper were discussed in the Icelandic Parliament in 2012 as you see on this picture. In 2014, the Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution on the necessity of making Icelandic usable in the digital domain. In 2016, three language technology experts were commissioned to develop a detailed five-year Project Plan for Icelandic language technology.

The Project Plan which was delivered in June 2017 proposes that emphasis be laid on five core tasks. Other proposals include the establishment of a competitive research and development fund, CLARIN ERIC membership, and strengthening of LT education. In the policy statement of the current Government, it is explicitly stated that the Project Plan will be implemented and financed. The estimated total cost of the project is around 20.2 million Euros.

In August 2018, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture commissioned the self-owned foundation Almannarómur to conduct the five above-mentioned core tasks. A month ago, on September 4, a contract was signed between Almannarómur and the SÍM Consortium that will carry out the research and development work necessary for this project. The deliverables of the project will be stored and distributed by the CLARIN-IS Centre.

The LT Project Plan execution emphasizes getting industry involved as early as possible in the process. This is reflected in the SÍM consortium which consists of three academic institutions, the National Broadcasting Service, the Association of the Visually Impaired, and four private IT companies. Thus, the consortium comprises practically all institutions, companies, and people that have been working on language technology in Iceland for the past two decades.

Following the proposal in the Project Plan, Iceland has now joined CLARIN ERIC – only as an observer, but Icelandic law has now been changed so Iceland can apply for full membership. In 2007, the University of Iceland and Reykjavík University established a joint master’s program in Language Technology. This program has now been resurrected and strengthened and a number of students are enrolled. Furthermore, three LT PhD-students have started their studies.

The Research and Development Fund has already given out a few relatively small grants, and some project supported by the fund are well underway. It is expected that larger three-year grants will be advertised in the course of the next few months. The SÍM Consortium has been firmly established and work on all the core tasks has started already or will start in the near future. The consortium members are busy planning the project and recruiting and training staff.

The Icelandic Language Technology Project Plan is very ambitious and in order for it to go through, we will need all the advice and assistance we can get. International cooperation is of utmost importance, and we are confident that participation in the European Language Grid will be very valuable for our work in the next few years. So at the moment, the future of Icelandic Language Technology looks promising!