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Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance

META-NET Strategic Research Agenda for Multilingual Europe 2020

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Executive Summary

The unique multilingual setup of our European society imposes grand societal challenges on political, economic and social integration and inclusion, especially in the creation of the single digital market and unified information space targeted by the Digital Agenda.

As many as 21 European languages are at risk of digital extinction. They could become victims of the digital age as they are under-represented online and under-resourced with respect to language technologies. Moreover, huge market opportunities remain untapped because of language barriers. If no action is taken, many European citizens will find that speaking their mother tongue leaves them at a social and economic disadvantage. Future-proofing our languages requires a modest investment which will return a strong competitive advantage, since the technologies needed to overcome language barriers and support languages in the digital age are key enabling technologies for the next IT revolution.

Language technology is the missing piece of the puzzle that will bring us closer to a single digital market. Almost every digital product uses and is dependent on language – this is why language technology is not an option! It is the key enabler and solution to boosting future growth in Europe and strengthening our competitiveness in a technology sector that is becoming increasingly important. The key question is: Will Europe wholeheartedly decide to participate in this fast growing market?

Priority Research Themes

Although we use computers to write, phones to chat and the web to search for knowledge, IT does not yet have access to the meaning, purpose and sentiment behind our trillions of written and spoken words. Technology will bridge the rift separating IT and the human mind using sophisticated technologies for language understanding. Recent language technology innovations such as Google’s web search, Autonomy’s text analytics, Nuance’s speech tools, online translation services, IBM Watson’s question answering and Apple’s Siri have given us but a first glimpse of the massive potential behind this important emerging technology. Today’s computers cannot understand texts and questions well enough to provide translations, summaries or reliable answers, but in less than ten years such services will be offered for many languages. Technological mastery of human language will enable a host of innovative IT products and services in commerce, administration, government, education, health care, entertainment, tourism and other sectors.

Europe is the most appropriate place for accomplishing the needed breakthroughs in fundamental and applied research and technology evolution. Our continent has half a billion citizens who speak one of over 60 European and many non-European languages as their mother tongue. Europe has more than 2,500 small and medium sized enterprises in language, knowledge and interface technologies, and more than 5,000 enterprises providing language services that can be improved and extended by technology. In addition, it has a long-standing R&D tradition with over 800 centres performing scientific and technological research on all European and many non-European languages.

Europe’s language technology community is dedicated to fulfilling the requirements of our multilingual society and turning its needs and business opportunities into competitive advantages for our economy. Recognising Europe’s exceptional demand and opportunities, 60 leading IT research centres in 34 European countries joined forces in META-NET, a European Network of Excellence dedicated to the technological foundations of a multilingual, inclusive, innovative and reflective European society and partially supported through several EC-funded projects.

META-NET assembled the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance (META) with more than 650 organisations and experts representing stakeholders such as industries that provide or use language technologies, research organisations, professional associations, public administrations and language communities. Working together with numerous additional stakeholder organisations and experts from a variety of fields, META/META-NET has developed this Strategic Research Agenda (SRA). Our recommendations for Multilingual Europe 2020, as specified in this document, are based on a thorough planning process involving more than one thousand experts.

The META Technology Council predicts, in line with many other forecasts, that the next generation of IT will be able to handle human language, knowledge and emotion in competent and meaningful ways. These new competencies will enable an endless stream of novel services that will improve communication and understanding. Many services will help people learn about and understand things such as world history, technology, nature and the economy. Others will help us to better understand each other across language and knowledge boundaries. They will also drive many other services including programmes for commerce, localisation, personal assistance, and allow robots to understand what their users want and need.

Our ultimate goal is monolingual, crosslingual and multilingual technology support for all languages spoken by a significant population in Europe. To achieve this, we recommend focusing on a small set of selected priority research topics dedicated to innovative application scenarios that will provide European research and development in this field with the ability to compete with other markets and subsequently achieve multiple benefits for European society and citizens as well as an array of opportunities for our economy and future growth. We are confident that upcoming EU funding programmes, specifically Horizon 2020 and Connecting Europe Facility, combined with national and regional funding, can provide the necessary resources for accomplishing our joint vision.

A recent policy brief by the Bruegel think tank proposes that Europe specialises in new ICT sectors as a means for post-crisis recovery. The European problem lies less in the generation of new ideas than in their successful commercialisation, and the study identifies the major obstacles: the lack of a single digital market, and the absence of ICT clusters and powerful platform providers. It suggests that the EU policy framework could overcome these barriers and leverage the growth potential of new ICT markets by extending research and infrastructure funding to pre-commercial projects, in particular those involving the creation of ICT clusters and platforms. This is exactly the goal we are trying to achieve with this SRA in our IT sector. Our recommendations envisage five lines of action for large-scale research and innovation:

  • Three Priority Research Themes along with powerful application scenarios to drive research and innovation. These will demonstrate novel technologies in show-case solutions with high economic and societal impact and creating numerous new business opportunities for European companies.
  1. Translingual Cloud: generic and specialised federated cloud services for reliable spoken and written translation among all European and major non-European languages.
  2. Social Intelligence and e-Participation: understanding and dialogue within and across communities of citizens, customers, clients and consumers to enable e-participation and establish more effective processes for preparing, selecting and evaluating collective decisions.
  3. Socially Aware Interactive Assistants: socially aware pervasive assistants that learn and adapt and provide proactive and interactive support tailored to the specific situations, locations and goals of the user by means of verbal and non-verbal multimodal communication.
  • The other two themes focus upon base technologies and a platform for services and technologies:
  1. Core technologies and resources for Europe’s languages: a system of shared, collectively maintained, interoperable tools and resources. They will ensure that our languages will be sufficiently supported and represented in future generations of IT solutions.
  2. European service platform for language technologies for supporting research and innovation by testing and showcasing results, integrating research and operational services, including professional human services. This e-infrastructure will allow providers from research and industry to offer components and services.

The objective of the priority research themes is to turn our joint vision into reality and allow Europe to benefit from a technological revolution that will overcome barriers of understanding between people of different languages, people and technology, and people and the digitised knowledge of mankind.

The themes respond to societal needs using LT-based solutions and provide concrete roadmaps for the planning of research, development and scientific innovation. They cover the main functions of language: storing, sharing and using information and knowledge; improving social interaction among humans; enabling social interaction between humans and technology. As multilingualism is at the heart of European culture and is increasingly becoming a global norm, one of the themes is devoted to overcoming language barriers.

The SRA recommends ways in which research and innovation need to be organised in order to achieve the targeted research breakthroughs and benefit from the immense economic opportunities they create. Core components of the strategy are innovative modes of large-scale collective research and interaction among the major stakeholder constituencies, including researchers in several disciplines, technology providers, technology users, policy makers and language communities.

It is decisive that intermediate results are quickly and effectively converted to solutions that will have a societal and economic impact and contribute to the rewarding practice of technological, social and cultural innovation as set out in the Digital Agenda as well as Horizon 2020 and Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).

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