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Natural Language Processing (NLP) – the ability of computers to understand spoken and written human language – is a cutting-edge technology now being used to support political and peace processes. It can identify the needs, sentiments, and interests of populations by mining and analyzing the views people express in public broadcasts and on social media. It can also enable mass digital dialogue to make political and social processes more inclusive.
The Innovation Cell of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA), together with researchers from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Birzeit University, has been advancing research on Arabic dialects, particularly Yemeni, Iraqi, Sudanese and Libyan, to improve NLP for digital peacebuilding applications. During the UN Arabic Language Day celebrations in December 2022 hosted at AUB's New York Office, the Debs Center, AUB, Birzeit, and the UN released a series of groundbreaking computer-readable dictionaries and resources for the four dialects. These open-source resources are now available globally to researchers, students, and peacebuilding practitioners.
“Arabic, with its divergent dialects, presents a complex challenge for computational approaches," says Prof. Fadi Zaraket from AUB's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, who co-led the project. “The differences in morphology and vocabulary between some dialects, such as Moroccan and Egyptian Arabic, are substantial enough as to make them mutually unintelligible; a human, or machine, that understands one cannot necessarily understand the other."
To allow AI-enabled computers to capture and sort the views of thousands and even millions of people from social media posts, the NLP process must treat each dialect as a separate language.
“The research scholars painstakingly created machine-readable databases for each dialect, called 'annotated corpora' in tech-speak," adds Prof. Mustafa Jarrar, professor of computer science at Birzeit University in Palestine. “These corpora are the infrastructure on which NLP applications are built."
Martin Waehlisch from the UN DPPA Innovation Cell that initiated the project says, “It allows UN officials involved in conflict-resolution to decipher some of the coded political language in local dialects to better understand public sentiments and social trends."
Daanish Masood Alavi from UN DPPA says, “There is a huge use case for new technologies for peace and security. NLP technologies can help make political processes more inclusive, uncover counterintuitive insights, and assist in the monitoring of human rights and ceasefire violations."
Waehlisch and Alavi say the peacemaking and peacekeeping potential for NLP tech is vast, as it can be applied to different kinds of signals that express in real time public sentiments across all sectors of society. The Innovation Team also is exploring how to apply NLP techniques with neuroscience research to conflict negotiations in a way that might increase the likelihood of successful negotiations. One possible way could be to offer real-time insights into negotiators' positive or negative reactions to issues.
AUB Global Engagement Co-Director Rami G. Khouri, who hosted the event at the Debs Center, noted that AUB continues to partner with institutions like the UN, global pollsters, and other research universities to share their immense expertise in the service of education and peacemaking. He concluded: “This unique partnership between scholars and practitioners helps to put academic expertise to good use in real-world situations, and to build bridges between the Arab region and the rest of the world."