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Language diversity key to unlocking artificial intelligence in Africa

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 02 Jul 2024
AI developers’ next challenge has to be solving the language barrier for African audiences.
AI developers’ next challenge has to be solving the language barrier for African audiences.

Calls to dismantle the barriers when it comes to the development of artificial intelligence (AI) tools for African audiences have been amplified, with Asian audiences also hearing these pleas.

Last week, key industry stakeholders, business leaders, companies and governments gathered for the GSM Association’s MWC 2024 in Shanghai, China, where the focus was on 5G advancements, bridging the digital divide and the transformation of devices in the age of AI.

With the rapid advancement of AI, ethical challenges have arisen, including bias in algorithms, privacy infringements and more recently language.

Given the continent’s multilingual landscape, it is feared AI’s rapid advancement will have the potential to leave much of Africa’s 1.2 billion population behind.

For example, South Africa has 12 official languages, but only one in 10 South Africans speak English at home – the language that dominates the internet. Throughout the rest of the continent, languages include Arabic, French Creole, Shona, Swahili and Swati, to name a few.

Speaking during an MWC Shanghai conference session on reimagining the future of devices, KaiOS Technologies CEO Sebastien Codeville said between 2 000 and 3 000 languages are spoken on the African continent.

However, 90% to 95% of the content on the internet is available in the non-biggest language (English) in the world, he stated.

“Many people don’t have access to content on the internet and this also applies to AI. Managing the diversity of [AI] language models will help us close the digital divide.”

KaiOS’s mobile operating system, used by 80 million people in over 100 countries, works on feature phones but powers them like a smartphone.

The company’s objective, according to Codeville, is to bring internet access to more people and enable them to run their businesses to accept payments using the connected devices.

“When we talk about the future of devices, we also need to consider the three billion people that remain unconnected and look for ways to get them on the internet.

“We [KaiOS] are active in the emerging markets. When you live in China and everything is digital, it’s easy to forget about the population that’s unconnected. I believe new technologies like 5G and AI are important and can play a role in connecting this population.”

Codeville further explained that among the key reasons people are not using the internet today is the high cost of devices, lack of digital literacy and the perceived usefulness of access.

“If somebody has a limited budget every day and every month, they don’t see the need to spend the little budget they have to access the internet. One of the big challenges we face every time we deploy into a new country is bringing digital literacy and education through the device, as well as helping people understand the value this brings.

“User interface change can contribute to device penetration and internet growth. I believe making devices simpler and more accessible is key. We need to look at how to use AI to make the devices more intuitive and interactive, and how to use voice-control to access features that were not accessible.

“The revolution of all this innovation can be beneficial for people who are not on the internet today…and avoid the widening of the digital divide.”

Seshu Madhavapeddy, CEO and co-founder of Frore Systems, noted: “The most important thing is interaction…the devices should feel natural to interact with. Using natural language and voice is a big step forward, but I think it has to become even simpler – there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”