App AI's yet to learn tīkanga Māori

By Bronson Perich

A Microsoft executive has explained the reason behind some of the unusual translations in their recently released Translator app.

Microsoft's Dan Te Whenua Walker told Te Ao, “The Microsoft Translator app is a pēpē (baby) born only last week. Nothing will be perfect on the first few days of birth. It is still finding its way and taking its first steps."

“It has no idea of tikanga yet,” the company's Cloud Infrastructure and Applications Solutions lead says.

The challenge of teaching te reo me ōna tīkanga to an app is something that Microsoft has embraced.

Hailing from Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Maniapoto, Tūhourangi and Ngāti Kahungunu, Walker understands that trust in their app will be earned over time.

“All language is a breathing, living thing and this technology includes levels of machine learning to ensure that the accuracy of the translations can be continually updated and refined.”

Walker went to extensive lengths to explain to Te Ao that the app's machine learning, or artificial intelligence (AI) inside Translator, is up to the task. As more people use the app over time, its AI will improve its reo, and grasp our tīkanga.

“We really hope people jump on and join us on this exciting journey.”

Teaching Translator our reo has been the culmination of a 15-year journey for Microsoft. To help them, Microsoft enlisted the aid of computer science lecturer Dr Te Taka Keagan, who also worked on helping Google Translate learn te reo as well.

Te Ao requested comment from Google about their Translate app, which is famous for its sometimes strange translations of te reo Māori. A spokesperson responded:

"Google Translate is an automatic translator, using patterns from millions of existing translations to help decide on the best translation for the user."

In addition, Google supplied Te Ao with documents outlining how Google translate does this. The documents explain that languages such as English and Mandarin have a larger body of text on the internet for Google Translate to draw on. 

This is not so for languages like te reo Māori. With te reo having a far smaller online footprint, Google Translate does not have as many texts to draw upon as it does with other languages.

In addition, Google Translate only draws upon written reo texts. It does not take into account spoken reo, whereas Microsoft Translator does.

Walker says, “We recently achieved human parity in translating news from Chinese to English.”

This means that Translator can translate English to Chinese with the accuracy of a human being. There is no reason why the artificial intelligence at the core of Translator cannot do the same for te reo Māori.

Walker concludes, “Poipoia te kākano kia puāwai – Nurture the seed so that it will blossom."

Perhaps Microsoft Translator will improve on its understanding of te reo me ōna tīkanga the same way any reo learner does - by surrounding itself with reo speakers and writers. However, Google Translate may miss the waka because it is programmed to do everything by the book.

The app is available on Microsoft Windows, App Store and Google Play.


Microsoft Translator (mobile) vs Google Translate (mobile) – translating the word “Papatūānuku”/ File

Microsoft Translator (mobile) vs Google Translate (mobile) – translating the sentence “Ko Papatūānuku e takoto mai na” / File

Microsoft Translator (mobile) vs Google Translate (mobile) – translating the sentence – “Purea nei e te ua” / File

Read More