Alexa MENA'S Dr Raf Fatani on providing localised services
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Alexa MENA’s Dr Raf Fatani shares how the brand is delivering a fully localised experience

Alexa MENA’s Dr Raf Fatani shares how the brand is delivering a fully localised experience

Hyper-localisation is key to driving brand growth in new markets, says, the company’s regional general manager

Divsha Bhat

In the Arab world, how does localisation ensure benefits of digital inclusion?

Arabic is among the top five most influential languages in the world. It is also the official language of more than 28 countries with a combined GDP of $2.5tn. There are over 420 million native speakers in the region and worldwide for whom Arabic transcends language to be a part of their heritage and cultural identity.

These growing numbers of Arabic-speaking consumers have a real passion for technology: Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the world’s most connected nations, with Internet penetration touching nearly 100 per cent. They are hungry for products and services that relate to their language and culture.

We see this in how the region’s young generation uses technology to its fullest, substituting numbers on English keyboards where there was no equivalent for Arabic letters, for instance. They have adapted and Arabised new terminology – even using English words like ‘wi-fi’ and ‘remote’ when the Arabic equivalent is complex or long.

Equally, we also have an older generation that remains untouched by the pace of digital evolution. Hence a big part of the localisation puzzle is ensuring the benefits of digital inclusion percolate to every segment of society.

My mother, for example, is an English speaker who might not be the most comfortable using technology in English. I consider her a benchmark of success – someone who is curious to try new things and would trust and access technology more if it catered to her effortlessly in her own language. If we can get customers like her to embrace technology, it would be a win for business and for digital inclusion.

What are the challenges to localisation and how is Alexa delivering a fully localised experience?

Today, AI voice technologies can understand and speak several languages. Yet there is still some way to go to ensure technology is easily adopted by all. For instance, when it comes to AI voice assistants – there are many aspects to localising that go beyond translation. First, selecting a voice that appeals to the largest segment of our local customers and testing speech recognition with multiple accents and dialects; then helping the AI understand context and intent, developing a personality that delights customers, and offering unique features and services that customers can appreciate.

The approach could be to cast the net wide and try to win over half a billion Arabic population. Or really hyper focus on each country at a time. At Amazon Alexa, we took the latter approach: focusing on the customers we’re serving in KSA and the UAE.

We wanted to deliver a fully localised experience right away to our customers by building a personality, which, for instance recites Khaleeji poetry and reacts to local events and news. We also launched with nearly 200 skills available in Arabic in December 2021 with local partners, who are part of the community we are serving, as no organisation can walk this road alone.

For any new language launch, we train a new machine learning model from scratch. Arabic with its 12.3 million words, as compared to 600,000 in English and 150,000 in French, requires more customisation and input, given the importance of context, intent and how they vary across the region. For our customers in Saudi and the UAE, Alexa was launched with the ability to understand all Khaleeji (Gulf) dialects, Modern Standard Arabic (Fus’ha), in addition to English, and respond in a Khaleeji dialect or English – depending on the customer settings. One of the main challenges we faced in building this language model was the lack of dialectal dictionaries or single source of truth, so we needed to get innovative.

Language is a living, organic entity that grows and evolves. While books, official transactions and formal settings use Modern Standard Arabic, similar to classical Arabic, the language of popular culture in the region is colloquial and dialectal Arabic. Dialects that would have never been written only a few years ago, have made incursions into classical Arabic, thanks to the rise of social media and messaging apps.

So, how did technology play a key role?

I see the role of technology as a tool to enable those who want to use in Arabic – in their preferred form. There is a real risk of alienating younger users by employing a language they do not speak in real life. We decided to embrace the language, its organic evolution, and dialectal elements, thus empowering and connecting with our community.

I liken the experience to hearing a familiar accent in a foreign country. Always comforting. It only makes sense that a voice AI who understands your language, culture, and habits adds greater value to your daily life. People like my mother who were alienated by technology are now able to integrate it into their lives in a meaningful way.

Alexa wakes her up for her prayers, recites her Quran, turns on her lights and air-conditioning in a convenient manner, and reminds her to do tasks. Getting these nuances right may be an incremental effort for those building technologies, but will ultimately help serve regional customers better. As we say at Amazon, it’s always Day one. Today, it really is still Day One for us as we embark on this journey of technology empowerment.

Read: Amazon brings Alexa, compatible with English and Arabic, to the UAE

Also read: Anghami delivers new interactive experience with Amazon Alexa

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