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More must be done to ensure Siri and Alexa are available in Welsh, Senedd told

MORE must be done to ensure virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa are available through the medium of Welsh, the Senedd heard.

Heledd Fychan, Plaid Cymru’s shadow minister for the Welsh language, raised concerns about the accessibility of Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, in particular.

She said it has been seven years since her Plaid Cymru colleague Llyr Gruffydd failed to get a response when communicating with Siri in Welsh in the Senedd’s chamber, or Siambr.

During a 2017 debate, Mr Gruffydd asked his smartphone: “Who is the first minister of Wales?” and “Hey, Siri, do you understand Welsh?”

Siri responded: “Sorry, I can’t search that,” and “I rather enjoy what I’m doing now.”

Ms Fychan warned: “Unfortunately I think if you spoke to Siri in Welsh now, the same thing would be the outcome.

“It doesn’t always understand me when I try to speak English to it, because of my accent.

“There is great work to be done to ensure that that range of technology that is part of our daily lives is available.”

Plaid Cymru MS Heledd Fychan
Plaid Cymru MS Heledd Fychan

Jeremy Miles raised the importance of linguistic banking as he gave a statement about a report on the 2018-2024 Welsh language technology action plan on February 20.

The education and Welsh language minister said: “We’re not yet in a position to be able to do that. 

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“To develop that kind of technology we need a significant range of linguistic data, and developers in the area are expecting dozens, if not hundreds of thousands of hours of data before they can create that kind of technology.

“At the moment, we have about 200 hours of relevant data in the Welsh language.

“That’s a very familiar story for minority languages, internationally.

“It is a challenge, and that’s why we’ve prioritised linguistic banking and, in the end, that will allow us to make sure that that happens.”

Education minister Jeremy Miles
Education minister Jeremy Miles

Mr Miles highlighted a Welsh Government-funded project at Bangor University which transcribes Welsh into typed text and can generate subtitles automatically. 

He said the university has partnered with Open AI – the company behind ChatGPT – to improve how its most powerful chatbot, GPT-4, processes the Welsh language.

Samuel Kurtz, the Tories’ shadow minister, said embracing technology can make the targets of a million Welsh speakers and doubling daily use of the language by 2050 realisable.

Conservative MS Samuel Kurtz speaking in the Senedd
Conservative MS Samuel Kurtz

Welcoming progress, he said: “The fact that the action plan recognises that technology is a priority area in terms of securing a place for the Welsh language in our lives is laudable.”

Mr Kurtz highlighted that SaySomethinginWelsh has created a free short course to help people learn the Welsh national anthem in four lessons, using an app. 

He called for improved free digital checkers for spelling, grammar and mutations in Welsh.

Alun Davies, a Labour backbencher, who represents Blaenau Gwent, was eager to know when he will be able to communicate with Alexa and Siri through the medium of Welsh.

Labour MS Alun Davies
Labour MS Alun Davies

The former minister said while the operating system on his iPhone is almost all available through Welsh, he has to turn to English when using apps.

Mr Davies called for a focus on open-source technologies rather than technologies that are closed or restricted in terms of licensing.

Mr Miles agreed about the need to foster a culture of open innovation, saying work with Open AI offers an opportunity to improve access to apps through Welsh in future.

On Alexa and Siri, Mr Miles cautioned: “The next challenge, and we’re already working on it, is to create hundreds of thousands of data.

“We have quite a long journey before we reach that destination, just because of the size of the Welsh language compared to the languages that are used more.”

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