🇮🇸 The land of AI and fire

By Elías Thorsson - March 21, 2023

In allying with AI, Iceland aims to protect its language and identity

Icelandic for fireside chat

By Elías Thorsson

REYKJAVÍK — ICELAND’S GOVERNMENT marked the inclusion of its language in the newest version of the widely discussed GPT technology on Monday with an event that looked at the future of small language in the digital age.

The event, titled “The future replies in Icelandic”, was organised to coincide with the release last week by OpenAI, of the fourth and latest version of GPT, a computer program that is capable of composing passable answers to questions by drawing on a body of text from the internet.

The new version includes Icelandic as the first language other than English to be included in the development of the latest version of the program.

Previous versions have been trained mostly using English and other major languages, which means that GPT doesn’t have the same abilities or breadth of understanding in smaller languages, the firm explained last week. The models have improved over time, but they don’t consistently produce clear and correct Icelandic translations.

I, president (📸: Elías Thorsson)

In 2022, Iceland’s president, Guðni Th Jóhannesson (pictured), led a delegation to the US that met with Sam Altman, the chief executive and co-founder of OpenAI, to discuss a possible collaboration and the feasibility of incorporating Icelandic into the firm’s chatbot, an on-line application that is used to pose questions to GPT.

“We wanted to make sure that, in the digital age, our language and other small languages will continue to thrive,” Mr Jóhannesson said in his opening remarks at the event on Monday. “But we cannot go abroad and beg big firms. And that is not what we did when we went to Silicon Valley. We came armed with enthusiasm, knowhow and data.”

Since 2019, Iceland has invested heavily in language technology that can make computers literate in Icelandic, and officials view teaching the language to GPT as an important step.

“The preservation of our language is no small matter; it is the most important challenge any nation can face. It is a question of our sovereignty, identity and keeping to the roots of our people,” the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, said.

Ms Jakobsdóttir joked about the anxiety she has felt towards AI after seeing The Terminator, a 1984 film that featured depicted AI in a monstrous light, but she admitted that the technology also has its benefits.

Those two elements were on display at the meeting’s endnote, as GPT composed an Icelandic poem about the value of small languages in the style of the “Hávamál“, a 164-stanza Viking-era poem, and then subsequently translated the work into English.

Rules its realm, rooted in its origins
The world’s diversity, a wealth of variation
In righteous communication seeking truth.

Iceland’s poets may have nothing to fear for the time being, but it is undeniably an important step for AI towards gaining Icelandic citizenship.

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This article has been fact-checked by Arctic Business Journal and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, with the support of the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any content supported by the European Media and Information Fund lies with the author(s) and it may not necessarily reflect the positions of the EMIF and the Fund Partners, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the European University Institute.