10 November 2013

Out of the Mouth of Babies: Young Europeans Should Learn to Code for Natural Language

Coding is becoming cool again. Western countries have counted the cost of failing to educate the next generation of ICT-smart young people. There was a drop in academic interest in “computer science” a few years ago and as a result there’s now a steady stream of government proposals for boosting information and communication technology education for the youth of European and other countries.

In September, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes and the EC Education Commissioner released some alarming figures about the state of ICT in the educational infrastructure and in terms of educational content. They detailed a list of 24 new initiatives to beef up ICT in education in Europe.

Digital jobs
In the United States they reckon that 1.4 million jobs—and 60% of sci-tech/engineering jobs of the future—will require computing skills. So if young people will have to become IT-savvy for almost any job, one way to kick-start at least some IT education at school would be to work from what children use most but know about least – namely, natural language. Using NLP as an educational problem space might offer an intelligent entry point into the great instauration of computer coding. At the same time we could help expand the community of NLP-aware coders and perhaps learn new tricks from a new generation of device-happy young innovators.

Coding cohorts
There have been courageous attempts to boot up a cohort of young coders in Europe. The Irishman James Whelton set up CoderDoJo to teach kids to code outside of the standard education system. 
Another much-praised venture has been the UK’s Raspberry Pi 'simple computers for kids' project, driven by Cambridge University stakeholders in the UK. In late October this year, they notched up their millionth computer manufactured in Wales - a credit-card sized device that plugs into a TV and a keyboard. The founders wanted it to be used by children all over the world to learn programming. But it actually may be more popular among older IT hobbyists, as this news item about building a speech translator suggests.
Can these efforts really rise to the challenge of fostering the kind of large-scale IT literacy being proposed in countries from the US to India? In the US, the Association for Computing Machinery is holding an Hour of Code to introduce more than 10 million students of all ages to the basics of coding - “a foundational skill for careers in the 21st century”.

Hackathons, Code-Ins & Community Building
It is heartening to see that Europe’s Apertium free/open-source machine translation community is already participating in this year’s Google’s Code-In. The idea is for students from all around the world to tackle small tasks (code writing, debugging, documentation, production of training material) to learn how to prepare for larger projects in the future. But it’s only a start.

Europe’s multilingual footprint poses a tremendous challenge for cross-border transactions. But there are already hackathons (e.g. the Moses Marathons for statistical machine translation) that can help open up opportunities for dedicated communities. 
So let’s give more incentives to younger hackers with an interest in the world of apps and human language, and encourage them to learn about existing resources and APIs to create new ways of addressing our language needs. Multilingual communication ought to be an enjoyable, cheap and profitable challenge. 

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