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Iñaki Alegria Loinaz
Elhuyar Zientzia eta Teknologia
Iñaki Alegria Loinaz
Director of Udako Euskal Unibertsitatea and Ixa Group researcher

The network which initiated the UEU has been very important for me, both at a personal level and at an academic one

Since March this year Mr. Iñaki Alegria has been the new Director of the Udako Euskal Unibertsitatea (UEU) -the Basque Summer University - although he hasn’t abandoned his work at his office in the Faculty. He is currently working in lecturing, as a researcher and in administrative tasks, as he tells us. Nevertheless, he shows no signs of fatigue; on the contrary, he talks with enthusiasm of the projects in each of the three areas and of the hopes he has for each.

First of all, congratulations on your new appointment. The office, however, continues as before. What are you working at now, here in the Faculty of Computer Sciences?

I’m a lecturer in Computer Sciences as well as a researcher in the field of language processing with the Ixa Group. I currently spend most of my time in this way and this is the way I want it. Over the past three years I have been the Vice-Dean for External Relations, taken part in the management of the Langune association, as well as being a member of the UEU administration team. I renounced the Vice-Deanship and Langune in order to direct the UEU and to continue with my other work. So, I do "three in one": I combine teaching with research and administration tasks.

What is the scope of the research?

I work with the Ixa Group, whose single line of research is language processing. We do not work on speech; in such cases, we convert the spoken language into written, and this is what we work on. Written text is made up of various elements, some of which are just simple problems of engineering —for example, orthographic correction—; others, on the contrary, are more complex.

And in regard to what you have just mentioned - spelling correction – how old is Xuxen?

Shortly it will be twenty years. Ixa, on the other hand, has just turned 25. Two theses identify the origin of Xuxen: one of them, that concerning computer science, was my thesis; the other by Mirian Urkia (UZEI-the Centre for Basque Terminology and Lexicography), deals with linguistics. We undertook the two theses simultaneously, and we finished them almost at the same time. Xuxen was a success from the moment of its creation and now carries on in this vein.

You said that some of the problems were simples ones?

Well, yes . . . they are simple but not child's play either. It is not easy to fathom out whether a word which appears to be badly expressed is, in reality, good or bad and, if it is bad, what might the most suitable word be to take its place. No, it’s not easy. This is why we let the "machine" decide in 100% of the cases. Although conceptually it may be easy, the topic has not been totally resolved. But it is easier than automatic translation.

You also, then, work in the field of automatic translation. Is that not right?

Yes, that’s right. In recent years we have devoted quite a lot of time and effort to this. We are developing a project in Europe under the direction of Kepa Sarasola. I am also taking part in this project. It is known as QTLeap: Quality Translation by Deep Language Engineering Approaches. In the world of automatic translation, statistic systems prevail and it is relatively easy to create a basic system using free software. This technique was developed in the laboratories of IBM and subsequently made public. At first, people viewed it with certain mistrust, but now it is the dominant system and it has left all others behind.

But it would appear that the trend is changing and this mentioned route has now peaked. Thus we have to go back to linguistic knowledge and find some way of combining this knowledge with statistics.

And they have started working on that?

Effectively. Another of the “strong” lines of research in our group is semantics, linked as it is with Wikipedia and WordNet. WordNet, created at Princeton University (USA), is a worldwide ontology. It has hypernyms, homonyms, synonyms, and so on, and the relationship between words is also included in this ontology, not in reference to a specific language, but to abstract concepts, and making up groups of acceptance. At the beginning, mapping was done in English; later in many other languages, Basque included.

The main problem is ambiguity, but our group has good specialists in disambiguation, i.e. in deciding what a word, in a specific context, means.

We have taken part in two European projects inked to semantics and we are working, in general lines, on what is known as "extraction of information", i.e. we convert unstructured text-containing information into structured information. This system enables locating other texts that may contain information similar to that of a determined text.

The last large group is made up of tools linked to teaching, a subgroup being devoted to this topic. We are also trying to simplify the tools we develop in order to be used in teaching.

Are research lines concerning bertsolaritza also involved here?

Bertsolaritza is, for us, a nice "problem"; a challenge. It involves a problem of artificial intelligence linked to our cultural heritage, and it is a veritable challenge for a robot to behave like a bertsolari (the exponent of the art form). This is what we are working on. There are two theses in this regard: one involves interaction and which aims to programme the voice, gestures, music and the silences; the other involves the creation or the composition of the bertso. The strategy we are currently experimenting with is based on automatic translation. Let’s imagine that all the elements of a text are translated: to translate a new sentence, you have to find those parts already translated and link them together, depending on their syntax, amongst other things. Our goal is to do the same with bertsos, of which we have a large collection: the parts we are interested in are selected and we link them up in the most coherent manner possible.

In short, on the one hand, we have experimented with new strategies with the bertsolari robot and, on the other, we have linked up with artificial intelligence and other fields. We have also observed that these topics stimulate curiosity amongst the public at large, which helps us to spread the word.

An attractive "bait", indeed. Also, the other topics that you have mentioned are highly relevant at an international level; you are also working on these, isn’t that right?

Yes. In the field of automatic translation, for example, numerous groups are working, much research is being published, and so on. But other fields are also important. Languages with scant resources, to cite one example, are very important for us. There is a community —SALTMIL (Speech and Language Technology for Minority Languages) — which is working in this area, and Kepa Sarasola is a member of its management team. This community promotes research, shares resources, organises congresses and meetings, etc., all this with the goal of promoting the technological development of languages with scant resources.

We are talking about Quechua, Aymara, amongst others. It is no easy task. Quite often in the territories of these languages there are willing young people who work and even, at times, manage to get aid for their projects, but then abandon them in order to relocate to more inhabited zones in the search for work. Collaborating on a number of projects with the University of Cuzco and with the Cuban educational system, we have made contacts (in Mexico) with speakers of the Nahuatl language. Our objective: to share the accumulated experience of Euskera with others and, within our possibilities, to help them.

Is not Euskera, in a way, an example of a language with few resources?

Undoubtedly. Each should guide their own process, but we believe that our experience can be useful to them, and this is why we place it at their disposal. The principal obstacle which we found is neither technological but sociolinguistic but, above all, due to lack of standardisation.

In my opinion, I believe that the process of the unification of Basque and of the creation of a standard language has not been sufficiently valued. Now, some are against this euskera batua (Unified Basque) and are talking of promoting the dialects. They have their arguments, clearly, for making these proposals, but the issue has also to be approached from a diametrically opposite angle – without standardisation, there is no future for a written language. When one travels abroad, one realises the importance that this question has, and that is why I like to highlight it.

You are still working in the world of computer sciences and now, moreover, you are Director of the Basque Summer University (UEU). Although this is a new appointment, your links with the UEU goes way back.

I started in 1984—I had just become an euskaldun berri (a new Basque speaker)—, with the help of Kepa Sarasola. I have always been very involved with the UEU: I have made great friends, learnt an awful lot, and the network promoted by the UEU has been very important for me, at both a personal level and an academic one.

The development of the UEU since those days to the present has been notable.

Yes; with time, its functions have evolved. It is now 41 years old. When it arose, the UPV/EHU did not even exist, and there was nothing in Euskera at university level. Some lecturers taught their subjects through Basque, but there was nothing organised. Thus the UEU was born, and it took its first step in creating what Karlos Santamaria had theorised about so much: a Basque university and which took territoriality into account. Elhuyar also contributed to that process.

So, the UEU became the mainspring for the nascent Basque university. The Summer Courses provided the opportunity for teaching practice, as many giving the classes were either students or recently qualified teachers, with no experience. At the same time, we founded a publishing house, crucial for the production of material and subject content; all an oasis for living in and through Euskera.

[Breaking out into a wide smile] I remember that, at the beginning, the courses were given in [the North Basque Country cities of] Bayonne and Biarritz, above all in Bayonne. Later we transferred to Pamplona which, over a considerable number of years, became one of the main reference points for the euskaldun militant. Many euskaldun berris went there just to speak and to practice what they had learnt.

That phase lasted some time but, little by little, a process of euskalduntze [the process of transforming people into Basque speakers] at the conventional university (above all in the UPV/EHU) was implemented, and students had increasingly more options for studying in Basque. Being able thus to study through Basque, the UEU option did not spark so much interest amongst students. Thus, we had to evolve, and summer courses began to offer other subjects, complementary to what the university was providing, in order to attract people.

After a certain period of time, we saw that less and less people were signing up for the summer courses and that the provision had to be offered for the whole year, with continuous, permanent education. Also, a "compactation" of the various disciplines was undertaken: a meeting of computer scientists; and another, more recent one, on natural sciences. These kinds of activities are organised throughout the year; on the other hand, short course are provided on a permanent basis. We continue to provide the summer courses, but with a different perspective and, moreover, work is carried out all year round. This was the second step.

And the third one?

That is already under way – the provision of courses online. Besides permanent ("lifelong") education, we also provide graduate and postgraduate degree courses. All this contributes to our strategic aim, i.e. the creation of a Basque university, a target which, in our opinion, has yet to be reached.

There is a considerable vacuum in this, for us strategic, field. As regards presential studies, there is a variety of subjects on offer from the UPV/EHU and from Mondragon Unibertsitatea, but no non-presential or online courses. This is a transfer that is still pending; many years have passed since the euskalduntze of the university and no steps have been taken in this direction.

About ten years ago, the UEU attempted an initiative with the Basque Government and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) - the Open University of Catalonia -, but the project did not prosper. We are currently developing a proposal with the Provincial Government of the Basque province of Gipuzkoa. Although the UEU cannot itself promote the project, our aim is that it be under way within a period of two or three years and providing graduate and post-graduate courses. Currently, the UEU cannot offer official degree courses but, for us, what is involved is a strategic objective to which we are working. We have to publicly spread the need for such courses, because it is just not on that there is nothing in this field; even more so when it is increasingly necessary to have the option of receiving lifelong education.

In the long term, the best solution would be to create a body in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) like the above-mentioned UOC. The Spanish UNED is an open university, as is the UOC. We are arguing in favour of online teaching in order to highlight the connection between teachers and students. We want to use technology to be close to our students, although they might be physically distant, given that this closeness is very important, above all in processes of long-term study. A dynamic for attracting students has to be created and in order to encourage them to continue their studies. This is our goal.

Any challenges in the short term?

For three years now we have been battling with the question of organising a seminar for young researchers but, to date, we have not been able to undertake it due to lack of funding. Our intention is to organise such a meeting for the spring of 2015 and repeat it every two or three years, thus recuperating the spirit of the barnetegi (a centre with intensive immersion programmes) of the UEU. There are many young Basque researchers at research centres and universities and in companies throughout the world, but with the same problem as us – they communicate with each other, with those closest to them and with people in their field of knowledge, but do not create a network with researchers from other disciplines. Our mission is precisely to help them build such a network.

Author: Ana Galarraga Aiestaran

Elhuyar Zientzia eta Teknologia magazine nº 308

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