Developing a Māori Siri

By Tumamao Harawira

A virtual assistant that speaks Māori, similar to Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, may be on the horizon.

Auckland University hosted a hui looking at artificial speech technology for Te Reo Māori that mimics and responds to human speech.

Doctor Peter Keegan of the Auckland Speech Research Group says it’s part of their work on Māori speech and developing technology around this.

"It is about gathering together groups that are involved in research and the development of apps for Te Reo Māori and speech. One of the main goals is to develop speech to text.

"This is the new world, and if we don't take it upon ourselves to develop this for smartphones and for computers, where our youth spend all their time, then it won't ever get there."

PhD scholar Isabella Shields, who studies Māori language sounds, believes recognising the distinct sounds of the language is key to the development of a virtual assistant.

"For example, in my work, I'm looking at the production and pronunciation of the ‘r’ sound. There are a lot of different approaches to that. It's hard to build a big picture of it all because people have different ways of doing it."

Peter Lucas Jones of Te Hiku Media says the Iwi Radio Network is looking at building a corpus of Māori language that could contribute to this work.

"Iwi Radio has been collecting resources for 30 years and there is real value in the interviews and songs," he says.

"The digital world is a new frontier. We need to look after this new world for the generations to come."