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Microsoft on mission to spread the word - in te reo Māori

Microsoft NZ managing director Vanessa Sorenson. Photo / Supplied

Global tech giant Microsoft's motto is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.

That's why Microsoft NZ has joined with a local New Zealand te reo translation company to improve translation services of te reo Māori.

Microsoft New Zealand's managing director Vanessa Sorenson told the Herald this was a "show of our commitment to te reo Māori" and felt it was a real "win-win" for the people of Aotearoa.

"I heard a saying that resonated with me: 'If Māori are doing well, then we are all doing well.' And so, that is where my passion comes from," said Sorenson.

Sorenson acknowledged differing levels of historical racism in Aotearoa, and that Microsoft is not concerned about any potential backlash in supporting the use of te reo Māori.

"Our intentions are for the rights of the people, this is not a tick-box," Sorenson told the Herald.

"This is Microsoft New Zealand genuinely on a learning journey.

"I am a true believer that through the preservation of the language, we can do a lot more for te reo Māori."

The project is in collaboration with Māori-founded tech firm Straker Translations. The founder and CEO, Grant Straker of Ngāti Raukawa, said this was an idea he had to support the growth and continuation of te reo Māori in Aotearoa.

"I'm part of the generation where the language was lost," Straker said.

Grant Straker of Straker Translations has joined up with Microsoft NZ. Photo / Supplied

"There just wasn't the opportunity to speak or learn and it's really hard as you get older to get that back."

Straker explained that the platform will combine Straker Translations' existing translation tools with Microsoft's own Microsoft Translator platform and AI technology.

The platform will initially focus on translating whole news media articles into te reo Māori at scale. Straker modelled this based on the success of the Catalonian daily newspaper.

"The Catalonian are like us Māori, they're really passionate about their language," said Straker.

"One thing I observed there that's different is their newspaper, and I wanted to replicate that in New Zealand."

The technology is still in development with the prototype expected in December. From early next year, knowledge will be embedded into the engine and will be available for use via a portal within news media newsrooms and translators.

Although a commercial model, the artificial intelligence will not be used for financial gain.

"We're hoping to build an ecosystem for te reo translators, that machines will improve the efficiency of humans," Straker said.

"Any language translation at scale has to be a mixture of human and machine. If solely using machines, the translation will be fast and low-cost but lacking quality. If you're only using humans, which is what we're doing for te reo Māori at the moment, it's very slow and hard to grow the language.

"Over time with the gradual development of the machine and building up the memory of the database of te reo Māori, the machine translations will improve.

Sorenson says that this partnership leverages the greatness of Straker Translations' organisation with the might of Microsoft.

"We are doing our best to get our New Zealand story on the global stage and I think we can be very proud of showcasing Aotearoa.

"We're in partnership with Straker Technology and we can create magic."

Sorenson hopes projects like this will encourage more Māori and Pasifika into the tech industry because current representation in the sector is low.

"I just feel that it will be so much more welcoming for Māori, when they can see, hear and speak their language.

"That is what diversity is all about."

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