Lack of French language technology?

First the call from Noel Jeanneney (see my post on this, and Mark Liberman for further well-informed and useful comments) for a European search engine to counter the Googlocracy in the domain of cultural content. Now a new complaint has come up about the lack of effective Euro knowledge management tools for competitive intelligence operations in France. The TNIS blog carries an interview (originally featured here) with Alain Juillet, a senior French civil servant in charge of business intelligence (BI), who reports to the General Secretary for National Defense. Sounds rather high level.

Asked what seems to be the problem with the French BI situation, M. Juillet replied:

Par exemple, nous manquons cruellement d’outils informatiques d’origine française ou européenne. Et notamment de solutions en matière d’extraction de données sémantiques ou vocales, d’outils de traduction automatique ou de moteurs de recherche spécifiques. Alors que maîtriser cette chaîne technologique est indispensable pour la sécurité et l’intégrité des transmissions dans le cadre du système d’information.

There is a worrying lack of French or European-sourced IT tools, especially for semantic or voice data extraction, automatic translation and specialized search engines. Yet it is essential to be able to control this technology chain for the security and integrity of communications within the (national?) information system.

In other words, you can’t trust anyone else’s knowledge mining and management (KM) tools when it comes to the highly competitive issues of business intelligence and, by association, national security. But should geopolitical suspicions translate so easily into technology options? Is it really possible for a non-Euro translation system to slip a subversive semantic bias into a given cross-lingual operation? The French seem once again to be saying yes: as with cold war nuclear weapons, KM is a strategic technology so it’s better to control it yourself.


Maybe this concern with the implicit “security” fear in U.S. tools is the real agenda behind the recent French Technolangue project that is currently trying to boost France’s overall language technology readiness. For the record, I wrote a somewhat snide article about all this a couple of years ago here. Yet according to a recently published Bureau van Dijk report commissioned by Technolangue (see my posting here), France has some 99 companies dedicated to language and speech technology, and a solid tradition of language processing excellence going back to the 1970s. Does M. Juillet know?

Obviously quantity does not mean quality. Yet ever since 1986, when Bernard Cassen (an academic, former Le Monde diplomatique writer and until recently president of ATTAC, the “international movement for democratic control of financial markets and their institutions”) wrote a whistle-blowing report on what would happen if Europe didn’t develop its ‘industries de la langue” for the emerging digital landscape, France can surely claim a pretty good track record in innovating in the language technology field.

France Télécom, which spun off good technology as Telisma, and LIMSI, one of the great European R&D labs for speech technology, have been world pioneers in speech recognition and text to speech technology; locally-listed Systran is a global translation automation brand name (and GETA in Grenoble is, among others, a major MT R&D center); and today there’s a slew of companies (Sinequa, Mondeca, TEMIS, Lingway) proffering advanced text mining and BI solutions.

So why is there still endemic concern about the lack of “semantic or voice data extraction, automatic translation and specialized search engines” when a quick phone call would theoretically net M. Juillet some of Europe’s best players? The key strategic wound that has never properly healed is the fact that France/ Europe today has no major computing company apart from…well, name one! Yes, SAP.

There is the concomitant fear that the Microsoft / IBM / Intel / Cisco road show is as much a threat as an enabler for Europe’s own IT knowledge agenda. Why? Because they run the desktops, enterprises and networks. Microsoft and IBM have also invested far more into research into KM type technologies (translation automation, and harvesting knowledge from unstructured text, be it written or voice) than most EU governments could even dream of. All of which means that the ultimate choice for M. Juillet and others will not between US and EU software solutions, but between IBM/Wintel and Open Source. But would France or the EU manage to control Open Source solutions any more effectively?

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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