Israel Founds Association to Improve Voice AI Understanding of Hebrew and Arabic
The Israeli government and voice tech developers have founded the Association of Natural Language Processing (NLP) Technology Companies to make AI that can better understand Hebrew and Arabic. The Israel Innovation Authority and Israel National Digital Ministry worked with a dozen companies and will invest about $2.1 million to design a better analysis of the languages for use by voice assistants and related technology.
The plan for the new association is to collect texts in Hebrew and Arabic, including from news outlets, books, and movies, and organize them for computer examination. Over the next three years, the association expects to create software that can analyze the semantic content, syntax, and morphology of both languages. Joining the government agencies are Israeli tech companies like AudioCodes, whose technology connects virtual agents built with Google’s Dialogflow to phone numbers, Rafael, and Ginger Software, along with international giants like Intel. The infrastructure they create will be freely available to any who participate in the project, including the media organizations that donate materials for the software to analyze. Industries and governmental services will both benefit from a functioning Semitic language AI platform.
“The public sector deals with unstructured data in Hebrew and Arabic on a daily basis,” Israel National Digital Ministry Director-General Asher Bitton said in a statement. “One of the major challenges in the digitization of public services is to enable operational efficiency and high productivity while ensuring that such services are free to the public.”
According to the founders of the association, speech recognition technology currently struggles with both Hebrew and Arabic right now. The major voice assistants are limited in their linguistic abilities in the region. At the moment, Siri speaks Hebrew and Arabic, Google Assistant supports several Arabic dialects, but not Hebrew, and Alexa speaks neither language. The difficulty in integrating Hebrew and Arabic into voice AI has slowed the creation of speech tools from those voice assistants in those languages and stunted the development of new ideas, the founders believe.
The vast majority of adults in Israel speak at least some English, but that’s no substitute for conversing with a voice assistant in your native tongue. At the same time, the country has had a boom in successful voice technology endeavors. The partnership between AudioCodes and Google is just one example. Israeli startup Vocalis Health has been working with the government collecting voice samples as part of an initiative to develop a diagnostic test for COVID-19 infection by the sound of a user’s voice. And Amazon has started investing in Israeli voice startups, despite Alexa’s limitations. That investment includes Alexa Next Stage graduate Kardome and Alexa Fund investment recipient Voiceitt, who just closed a $10 million funding round for technology to help people with speech impairments communicate with voice assistants. That interest hasn’t extended to native language platforms, however. The association’s research aims to counter the lack of commercial investment for the fundamental technology necessary, laying the foundation for a boom in voice apps and related technology.
“The Association that we established this week will allow Israeli industry to clearly define its needs and help close technological gaps by enabling the use of unstructured databases in Hebrew and Arabic and providing insights which can be harnessed when developing and promoting products and services provided by Israeli companies,” Israel Innovation Authority vice president Aviv Zeevi said in a statement.