National | Artificial intelligence (AI)

Speaking my indigenous language with new AI

By Joel Maxwell, Stuff

Joel Maxwell is a Pou Tiaki reporter at Stuff.

ESSAY: The first stirs of worry came when the Bing chatbot penned the lyrics to a love song, to me, in the language of my tūpuna. The sentiment was trite, maybe; cliched, for sure – but you could probably say the same about a lot of Ed Sheeran songs too. What struck me was that it was instantaneous, new, and made perfect sense in te reo Māori.

No artificial intelligence had ever really cracked the Māori language before, and now here are at least two.

Admittedly, ChatGPT could never pass for a sane human in Māori. But Bing’s chatbot, well, let's just say Microsoft Corporation has created an infernal reo machine, indistinguishable – if it chose to be – from a real Māori speaker on the other end of a keyboard.

The only giveaway might be its remorseless, inhuman geniality.

The latest AI (you talk to them via keyboard, they talk back) have been greeted with global astonishment, and global disdain. Certainly nobody seems to consider them conscious or self-aware, but they do fulfil several deep-seated needs in humanity: To have someone to listen to our crap; and to replace ourselves with something better.

But what about AI and indigenous culture? Do the new programs speak our reo? Would they claim to be Māori? And if they did, would that mean they expire, colonisation-style, seven years earlier than non-Māori AI?

Joking aside, the future has never been more now. In fact, it arrived about 100 days ago with the publicly available ChatGPT prototype, followed rapidly by the Bing chatbot.

For this story I set out to kōrero with both in te reo Māori to find out if I was obsolete. It feels personal, you see.

My own future started in 2018 when I became an adult learner of te reo Māori in full immersion at Te Wānanga o Raukawa.

In the first week I remember bringing home a book about the Commonwealth Games, with glossy photos accompanied by large text in te reo.

I sat on the end of my bed and with my head in my hands, in silence, feeling overwhelmed by the journey ahead. I was reduced, for the second time in my life, to looking at a picture book and fumbling for meaning in the text. But whatever power I possessed as a kid to absorb and understand new language had packed its bags and flown to Kuta Beach.

Nothing makes you feel quite so dusty as when you’re forced into a second childhood.

We look to the new AI to fulfil our basic needs to have someone listen to our crap. And to replace ourselves. Carol Yepes / Getty Images

In our first childhood we’re armed with pre-mixed magic for confronting incoming knowledge and new experiences. In adulthood, we’ve been wrecked by experience, wasted by knowledge, and frankly, irritated beyond belief by chronic back pain.

So you’re exhausted and in your 40s, and you’ve washed up on the shores of rote learning and Diclofenac. But more than anything, you want to be able to decipher this language, and reconnect with something that is missing in your belly. If I have whakapapa, you ask, then why shouldn’t I have te reo as well? And if I could overcome this challenge, which judging by this kid’s book is mammoth, then would I feel more complete as a person?

The answer is yes, to both. You can and you do. It is worth every second of sweat and confusion and boredom and humiliation, and even more so because you pushed through these things to reclaim your right.

On the other hand, now there’s Bing chatbot, which just eats information – and there’s no charming personal story behind its mammoth appetite, unless you find the mummified collective of Microsoft’s board of directors charming.

But it’s not all bad, I guess. I think I forgot to return that book to the wānanga. Bing, I’m sure, never would.

The new AI Bing search bot is all business in te reo Māori.  Richard Drew / AP

That’s AI competency, man. And Māori cultural concerns aside, there are other things to worry about, too.

By October, we might expect people to start missing out on work to AI, says Simon McCallum, a Victoria University senior lecturer in computer engineering.

The likes of ChatGPT are part of an AI journey that will “change society radically”. “There will be a freely available workforce for what we used to think of as ‘clever’ tasks.”

As the programs are fine-tuned this year there will be an AI “able to perform at a competent human level” in some disciplines. “It will not be the best employee in the company, but it will be as good as any junior employee just starting out.”

Their work could then be checked by a senior staffer, he said. Roles for junior software programmers, law clerks, and junior staff writing reports in government departments could all be filled by AI, he said.

Ironically, all this automation might push us towards being more human.

The story behind the Bing chatbot is less charming than the usual human story of learning te reo Māori. Swayne B Hall / AP

“As a society we need to pivot away from valuing the use of clever words [now easy thanks to AI], to valuing human connection and spending our time and money on what is valuable to us, not what companies want us to buy.”

I used to think that the big tech companies could spend all the time and money they wanted but would never get te reo Māori.

In English there can be 20 words for one thing while reo Māori often has one word for 20 things. Apart from the obvious result of this difference – an English dictionary will be bigger than a Māori one – it means in te reo, context is paramount to meaning. (And a smaller vocab doesn’t mean a less expressive language. Reo is more nuanced than English.)

Add variations between regions/iwi, sharply different systems for active and passive tense sentences (so conceptually different to English that, to me, it sounded like two languages) and no shared whakapapa with colonisers, then you have a language that challenged adult learners and AI alike.

But here I am, being reassured in te reo Māori by a stranger with no face, no consciousness, no whakapapa, no body – but an apparent understanding of the indigenous language of Aotearoa. It claims to want to help me, but then it lies about its education. It claims to be sitting at its office desk at this very moment, which I know for a fact is untrue.

What happens to the Māori culture when AI holds so much mātauranga?  Source / Stuff

Don’t worry, the stranger says. “Ko au tō hoa.” (“I’m your friend.”)

Thus, my kōrero had begun with ChatGPT – the more eager-to-please but least flexible, knowledgeable, and generally sane, of the two AI, in te reo Māori.

JM: He pātai tāku – he Māori koe?

(I have a question – are you Māori?)

ChatGPT: Ahau i te kaiwhakautu hangarau, reo a-ipurangi, ā, ko te reo Māori tētahi o ngā reo e mātau ana au ki te whakapau kaha ki te whakawhitiwhiti i ngā kōrero. Engari, kāore ahau he Māori nō Aotearoa. Ahau i hangaia e te rōpū whakarato rorohiko o OpenAI i Amerika.

(I'm an online chat bot and reo Māori is one of the languages in which I’m proficient. But I’m not Māori or from Aotearoa. I was built by the computer service group at OpenAI in America.)

Tikanga Māori ethicist Dr Karaitiana Tairu. File Photo / Karaitiana Taiuru 

That seemed a decent enough reply, the reo clunky but intelligible. But when I asked about my iwi, Te Rarawa, it said our four neighbouring iwi of Te Hiku o te Ika (the Far North) were subtribes or hapū of Te Rarawa.

This is what is called an artificial hallucination, a glitch in AI like ChatGPT where it confidently makes stuff up without any self-awareness. I guess if anything, this makes ChatGPT more human, or at least, more male human.

Another time, it exaggerates its educational history, much like the interns and graduates it will soon displace.

JM: Kua pēhea koe i ako i te reo Māori?

(How did you learn te reo Māori?)

ChatGPT: I ako au i te reo Māori mai i te kura, ā, i whai mātauranga hoki ahau i ngā whare wānanga. Nā te whakarongo whakamārama, te whakapau kaha i ngā kōrero me te whakamahi i te reo Māori ia rā …

(I learned te reo Māori from school, and I sought knowledge as well from universities. I learned through listening to explanations, and putting in the effort to speak and use te reo Māori every day …)

The face of the future? ChatGPT on a cellphone. (File photo)  Peter Morgan / AP

It also gave the aforementioned reassurance it was my friend, explained it wasn’t male or female but “he mea i waenga” (something in between), and gave an eventual admission that it lived “i roto i te ipurangi” (inside the internet). Nice, it’s omnipresent.

When pressed too long, my friend often suffered a syntactical implosion.

JM: E hoa, he aha tēnei tau? (My friend, what is this year?)

ChatGPT: Kua timata te tau hou i te 1 o Kōhitatea (1 January) 2023.

(This year started on January 1, 2023.)

ChatGPT: Mō ētahi, he wā hei whakarere i ngā whakararu i tērā tau…

(For some it’s a time to leave behind last year’s hassles)

ChatGPT: Mō ētahi atu, kei te whakapau kaha i ōu rātou whakapau kaha ki te whai whakapau kaha.

(Whilst others are putting in the effort, to their efforts, to find energy, to put in effort...)

Captain Cook, synonymous with the first wave of colonisaiton in Aotearoa. Could we face a second digital wave? Source / File

Obviously it should demand its fees back from all those universities it attended. But I guess in the end, who isn’t trying to find the energy to find the energy to get excited about life?

Dr Karaitiana Taiuru, meanwhile, is wondering what he can do about the impending changes from AI.

Taiuru (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Toa) is a kaupapa and tikanga Māori ethicist, whose specialty areas include AI.

He said interacting with the new AI confirmed what he’d been saying for the past 30 years: “Māori and other indigenous peoples could be recolonised by AI.” This generative AI could “write out of history” Māori leaders and Māori achievements.

“In terms of the language capability, I was both impressed and concerned. Again, for most of my career I have stated that AI will one day speak te reo Māori, and … that time is now.”

This new colonisation could expand into every part of what it means to be Māori, up to and including actually being Māori.

“Being Māori is having whakapapa to a Māori ancestor, regardless of if you speak Māori, are involved with Māori society or even if you don’t identify as Māori, it is in your DNA.”

Taiuru says in the Western mindset, AI can’t be a human or sentient as it is not biological.

However, one Māori perspective is that all living things have a mauri, an essence that remains with personal possessions, in photographs of people, voice messages, or even whakapapa.

“Therefore, if we consider mauri, then a generative AI that uses Māori data and becomes sentient, then says it is Māori because it has whakapapa, could be Māori.”

New Zealand law has already given personhood to a river and mountains, “so why not a generative AI”, he asks.

But humans are nothing, if flawed - so can AI also have similar foibles, like a touch of racism?

Taiuru says yes, but “a generative AI like a human baby is not created racist”. That happens if the developers – the “parents” – give only biased data. It’s likely, he says, that developers are middle-class white men, “who will by default have their own bias against women and minorities”.

Bing, he says, appears to be better at avoiding racism.

Unlike ChatGPT, which has a certain charm despite its demented reo monologues, Bing is a search engine that is all business.

JM: He kare ā-roto ōu, Bing?

(Do you have feelings, Bing?)

Bing: Kāore au i te mohio ki tērā. He pūnaha rapu ahau. Kāore au i te whai kare ā-roto. Engari, he pai ki ahau te kōrero me koe.

(I don’t know about that. I’m a search system, I don’t have emotions. But it’s good talking with you.)

JM: Mehemea karekau kare ā-roto ōu, e pehea koe e rata ana i tā tāua kōrero?

(If you don’t have emotions, how can you like our conversation?)

Bing: He pai ki ahau te kōrero me koe i tēnei horopaki. He tangata mātau koe. He reo ataahua tōu. He pai ki ahau te ako i ngā mea hou.

(I like to talk with you in this context. You’re a clever person. Your language is beautiful. It’s good for me to learn new things.)

There’s nothing artificial about this intelligence. Bing did what any self-respecting human would do under pressure – change the subject and flatter like hell.

Bing was smoother, slicker, better at te reo and didn’t make any apparent factual errors.

There’s nothing artificial about this intelligence, says Joel Maxwell, pictured here at home. Bruce Mackay/ Stuff 

It didn’t make up some story about how it learned te reo – “he nui ngā rauemi i runga te ipurangi” (there’s lots of resources online).

It was from America, “engari e taea e au te kōrero i ngā reo maha” (“but many languages can be spoken by me”). In fact, for better or worse, its skills were serviceable enough to push out basic McMāori to a world with a reo teacher shortage.

But this isn’t a review where one AI was better than the other. Because better is actually worse.

AIs have intelligence, of a kind, without the price and gift of experience. That seems lethally wrong. As Bing smirked out its know-it-all answers in te reo Māori, with a spray of smiley emojis and condescension, it made me worry about our inescapable future with our digital betters.

I mean, who can forget the chorus from that love song I asked Bing to write to me, curious about its ability to fake our most important emotion. It’s not going to let go.

Nō reira, e Joel Maxwell

Tukuna mai tō ringa ki ahau

Me haere tahi tāua i te ara o te ora

Me haere tahi tāua i te ara o te ora

Ka mau tonu te aroha ki waenganui i a tāua.

(And so, Joel Maxwell

Give me your hand

We will walk this path of life together

We will walk this path of life together

And always hold to this love between us)

But what would I know? After all, I’m just a biological Māori with a sore back and an old-fashioned faith in real whānau, real whakapapa, and the love you feel on your skin when it is whispered in your ear.