Bringing the European Parliament closer to citizens through AI

To mark the International Day of Democracy, we are sharing how AI will be supporting the European Parliament in overcoming language barriers and making the political process accessible to all.

Europe’s strength lies in its plethora of cultures, traditions and languages, and safeguarding multilingualism is vital for delivering on the EU’s motto of ‘United in Diversity’. That is why within the European Parliament, the only EU institution whose members are directly elected by citizens, multilingualism is a non-negotiable prerequisite for supporting the democratic process. The Parliament has a wide pool of human translators and interpreters dedicated to this cause, ensuring timely, widespread coverage of all parliamentary discussions in all 24 official European languages. Now the Parliament is turning to technology to augment its translators’ capabilities and ensure that every European everywhere can participate in the political process in real-time.

Microsoft has been selected as one of three organizations to partner with the European Parliament in developing an AI-based tool that will automatically transcribe and translate parliamentary debates in real-time, with the possibility to learn from human corrections and edits. The initiative aims to bring the democratic process closer to citizens, by ensuring that the Parliament’s debates are accessible to all, including people with hearing loss or deafness, who will soon be able to follow political debates live thanks to machine-generated transcriptions. The tool will also speed up the process for finalizing and publishing official transcripts and translations of the Parliament’s debates in all 24 languages.

While Microsoft has been providing transcription and Azure AI translation services within its products for some time, the unique needs of the European Parliament demand a tailored approach. That’s where a team of all-European experts has stepped in, demonstrating Europe’s know-how in areas such as Azure AI-based speech recognition, processing and machine translation. French-born Dr. Olivier Nano and Chris Wendt from Germany are just two of the many engineering brains behind Microsoft’s contribution to this initiative and whose knowledge is being deployed to tackle the specific challenges at play within the Parliament’s plenary rooms.

Chief amongst these is the need for effective audio capture. In a political context, where discussions can be heated and sensitive, as well as deeply technical, precision, accuracy and quality are all watchwords when it comes to transcription and translation. As Olivier Nano puts it: “Any error in speech recognition will be compounded when translated”.

To reduce the risk of errors, Microsoft’s Azure AI-powered technology has the ability to adjust for different regional or national accents, varying acoustics depending on the room where discussions are taking place, varying pitch of voices, or ambient noise. The tool has also been trained to recognize complex technical vocabulary – a frequent occurrence during political discussions – or hard-to-pronounce proper names and acronyms. And it can also recognize if a speaker has a speech impediment, and account for this in the transcription.

Although Members of the European Parliament have every right to address the room in their native tongue, many choose to do so in another, more widely-spoken language, which can further distance citizens from the political process. Microsoft’s team members are themselves multilingual, meaning they understand first-hand what the challenges of communicating in a second or even third language can be. Chris Wendt explains why this matters: “Our team is motivated by the intent to break down language barriers: so we can all speak our mother tongue and still communicate together. In the end, this is an effort in inclusivity and accessibility.”

While the tool is yet to be deployed during a first plenary session, it can already deliver French, German and English translations, and will ultimately expand to 10 languages by September next year. The European Parliament will then decide which of the three solutions can best deliver high quality, live speech-to-text translations for all 24 languages.

One thing is clear, the lessons learned from this project will benefit Europeans in many different ways. “Technology like this can benefit all public institutions, whether at the EU or national level, in helping bring citizens closer to the democratic process,” says Olivier Nano. It will also enable linguistic diversity for organizations of all sizes, as Chris Wendt points out: “When scaled, this technology can help individuals and even the smallest of businesses to work in an international environment and overcome linguistic barriers.” We look forward to working towards these ambitions for the benefit of all European citizens.

How does the tool work?

Machine translation systems are applications or online services that use machine-learning technologies to translate large amounts of “source” text from one language into a different “target” language. The solution Microsoft has developed for the European Parliament uses AI technology known as ‘neural networks’ to translate whole sentences or logical sentence groups based on the context the source words are used in. Since any given word can have multiple different meanings, and hence different translations, when viewed in a dictionary, the system instead uses probability to select the most likely definition and translation based on the surrounding context. To make this more accurate, the tool has been pre-trained with large amounts of publicly available data from past European Parliament sessions, to build a system which is probabilistically shifted towards the language and terminology used by parliamentarians.

Learn more about Microsoft Translation services here.

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