The rise of generative AI, an artificial intelligence technology that produces various types of content, including text, audio and synthetic data, raises an urgent need to feature African languages online.
When we consider the fact that content on ChatGPT was made possible by years of English content written online, we can only imagine the extent of the African language gap. This is not to say that African languages do not exist on platforms such as ChatGPT; however, their presence is very poor.
For them to improve there will be a need for concerted effort to write in African languages online. There was a period when the value of this exercise was poorly understood. It has now become critical that it is addressed. Here’s why.
If tools such as ChatGPT become a norm, it will be an injustice for them to exist only in a few languages. It would benefit society if more people were to benefit from the innovations that will come from these tools. We know that generative AI will have an immense impact on productivity. We also know that there will be a need to shift how we work and align with upcoming changes.
It would be unfair for African language communities to miss out on these benefits. In the web era of the internet, African languages have suffered and to some extent they were not featured. It would be an error to repeat such a mistake.
It is encouraging to see organisations such as Google, which has embraced Swahili in its early version of its AI tool, Bard. Such an effort will have a positive impact on the preservation of African languages online and indirectly Swahili language speakers.
More technology companies would do well to invest in efforts that are aimed at ensuring that African languages feature in future technologies. Currently, we see tech tools such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant as well as Google Maps only speaking English.
In future, it would be ideal to see these tools hearing and speaking in African languages. This, however, will not happen by accident. It will require investments towards the advancement of African languages online and on digital platforms. It will require institutions of higher learning to lead in developing programmes that are designed to advance African languages on digital platforms.
The case for African languages on digital platforms is no longer just a nice-tohave. It has now become a survival issue. When it comes to preserving languages online, there’s a lot to learn from the Afrikaans language. Afrikaans as a language is one of the leading languages in terms of translation on WordPress. It also has a significant presence on Wikipedia. The same cannot be said about Xhosa. Further analysis of this issue indicates that there are historical and economic reasons for this disparity.
It is, therefore, important to work towards closing those gaps. There are significant lessons to learn from how Afrikaans has managed to keep up with technological advancements to preserve the language online. In the very near future it may be possible to get Google Maps or advanced version of ChatGPT in Afrikaans. This will be made possible by the fact that the language has amassed significant archives over the years which will be useful in building technologies of the future based on their content.
Other languages can also rely on work done by the SABC and some academic institutions to initiate efforts that will lead to advancement of African languages online and on digital platforms.
In addition to everything that has been done thus far, it may be useful to assign a group of young graduates to take this initiative as a project that will also allow them to apply their knowledge of African languages as well as technology. They will need support from businesses and institutions that really care about the existence of African languages.
The technology exists to ensure that African languages are featured on digital platforms of the future. What is required now is a dedicated group of people who are determined to preserve African languages on digital platforms.
In future, it should be possible to speak with Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and other platforms in Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. For that to become a reality it will be necessary to imagine a future where African languages exist across digital platforms.
Wesley Diphoko is the Editor In Chief of Fast Company.