Tagata Pasifika

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Chatbot ‘Tala’ becomes first artificial intelligence agent to speak Samoan

Auckland-based engineering firm Beca is hoping that a new artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot called ‘Tala’ will allow Samoan language speakers to give voice to their opinions in public consultations.

The chatbot is a software application developed through a question-answering computer system called IBM Watson Assistant. It mimics one-on-one consultations by understanding human sentiments and allowing users to converse in their natural language.

This will be the first time in New Zealand that IBM Watson has been used for a language outside of English.

Business director Matthew Ensor says given that Samoan is the third most spoken language in New Zealand, the hope is for councils and government agencies to use Tala for their consultations as a way of engaging the ‘silent majority’.

“We know in some parts of the community, English can be a second language, or culturally the tradition is not to respond on web forms and emails and things like that.”

“We also found that English was a barrier to some because they weren’t sure they could communicate clearly what their views were,” he said.

A team of eight interns and 500 Beca staff have been working on the project in conjunction with community members to bring Tala to life. It has recently been trialled with a few dozen Samoan speakers between the ages of 19-77.

“What we found was that it was not the accuracy of the translation that was important but the appropriateness.”

“And that balance between casual Samoan and formal Samoan was a big challenge.”

“There was a growing preference for using casual Samoan in the younger members of the community, and so we’re looking at that,” Matthew said.

Tala’s identity is still under wraps for further testing, but Matthew says the response so far has been ‘overwhelmingly positive’, thanks in large part to his AI research and development intern Luke Fitzpatrick, who conceived the idea and is also of Samoan heritage.

“That’s a challenge for a lot of organisations who are developing AI  – is to get that diversity, that culture and all kinds of diversity into their team because that’s the only way we’re going to have AI that’s really going to work well in different communities,” he said.

By Anauli Karima Fai’ai

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