The first voice assistant capable of speaking Icelandic has launched as an Android and iOS app. Icelandic startup Miðeind debuted the voice assistant, named Embla, after almost two years of development with support from the Icelandic government’s program to incorporate the country’s language into digital services.
Embla Talar (Embla Speaks)
Embla combines several of the standard features for a virtual assistant. The AI can answer questions about local stores and transit, share local weather reports, and look up information on Wikipedia that isn’t in its database. The voice assistant is capable of conversing in Icelandic, too, with jokes and other commentaries. Embla is named for the first human woman in Norse mythology, appropriate as it is the first of its kind to speak Icelandic. The project’s underlying language technology, Greyni is open source and available on GitHub. Miðeind is part of a group of tech companies working with the government to bring Icelandic to digital technology, including sharing some of what they’ve put together. The goal is to encourage the use or at least preservation of the language, which is only spoken in Iceland and by expats around the world.
“There is a demand for this. People are talking a lot more to their devices and want to be able to talk to their devices,” Miðeind’s Katla Ásgeirsdóttir said in a statement to RUV. “Children do it a great deal, talking to their phones and computers. Then people are speaking English or other languages because it has not been on offer to use Icelandic. Such technology on the general market is important for us—not to mention that it’s about time!”
None of the major voice assistants speak Icelandic. In fact, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri all lack most European languages, with usually just the most widely spoken few making the cut. That’s part of why voice assistants that can speak the neglected languages have begun to appear. For instance, MAIC (pronounced ‘Mike’) is a voice platform by Greek tech developer Making Life Simple (MLS) Innovation that can speak Greek, Serbian, Albanian, and Bulgarian. Meanwhile, Estonia has a plan to create a network of artificial intelligence applications, including a nationwide public service voice assistant called #KrattAI. The idea is to apply AI to accomplish the kind of tasks that usually require a phone call or an in-person visit to a government agency.
That’s not to say Icelandic will never come to the bigger players. Apple has begun hiring experts in several European languages to work on Siri, although Icelandic is not on the list. And while Amazon is currently only selling English-speaking Echo devices in the Netherlands, the addition of support in that country for other smart device manufacturers suggests that’s likely just to be the prelude to adding Dutch to Alexa’s languages.