Archive for November, 2008

Dutch-speaking language and speech technology sector looks in the mirror, and ahead

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

About 175 professionals from the Dutch-speaking speech & language technology community gathered in Brussels yesterday for the second edition of Taal In Bedrijf (”Language At Work”). The main goals of the event were to present results from the government-sponsored STEVIN program, to poll for remaining needs in and around the field, and to reflect on the best way to address those needs in post-STEVIN times.

The morning sessions focused on practical applications of Dutch speech and language technology in diverse areas such as multimedia, games, written communication, E-government, E-health, E-learning, (semi-)automated translation, mobility, logistics, and business intelligence. Quite a few of the applications presented have been or are being developed under STEVIN’s demonstrator subprogram, which attracted one million euro, or 8.7% of the total 5-year STEVIN budget.

The breadth and versatility of speech and language technology makes that it is almost always combined with other technologies, as part of a broader solution. As a result, the speech & language technology field as a whole is somewhat diffuse and difficult to grasp to outsiders. During my presentation, I therefore pleaded in metaphorical terms for a “TST Inside” logo (TST = Taal- en SpraakTechnologie) to improve the visibility and accessibility of technological resources like parsers, recognizers, spoken and written corpora, grammars or ontologies. More practically speaking: if we want our companies and fellow citizens to know and use our beloved tools & techniques, this is the time for existing distribution agencies like the TST-Centrale to step up, enter the front-stage and play a more pro-active and visible role. This extension of duties may require an organizational upgrade from its current project status within the INL to an autonomous agency with clear strategies, budgets, targets, plus travelling sales people, lobbyists, and … its own website!

As for the Dutch and Flemish governments’ role, their classic function as subsidizer can be complemented as well. For a start, government departments and public companies (in the European sense) could take the lead themselves and apply speech and language technology in their own daily operations. There is still a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked in this area, especially in Flanders. Three examples, to name just those: De Lijn (public transport company), the Vlaamse Infolijn (general number for government inquiries), or VDAB (Flemish Work Agency).

Another recommendation for the Flemish speech & language field is to structurally organize ourselves, like our Dutch friends from NOTAS already started doing … seven years ago. My own positive experience with the Speech Technology Workgroup within -thank you, Peter Edel, for the presentation yesterday- has shown that self-organization is a necessary condition to create a sector in the minds of innovation managers and other decision makers. As any marketing student can tell: if our customers can’t mentally locate us, we don’t exist.

So let’s keep up the good work, and make some (more) noise. Oh yeah, and keep on improving our technologies. But that’s another discussion.