Deadliest Apartheid: Babelism Dooms Artificial Intelligence in Africa

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    The Language of Exclusion: How AI’s Ignorance of Africa’s Multilingualism is Leaving Billions Behind

    The AI revolution has left Africa’s 1.2 billion people in the dark, literally. While the continent’s multilingual landscape is a rich tapestry of over 2,000 languages, the internet’s dominance of English has created a barrier that’s excluding the majority from the digital world. The 90% of internet content available in English is a cruel joke, leaving 90% of the population in the shadows.

    At the recent MWC 2024 in Shanghai, industry stakeholders, business leaders, and governments gathered to discuss the transformation of devices in the age of AI. But amidst the buzz about 5G advancements and bridging the digital divide, a pressing issue was ignored: the language barrier. The consequences of ignoring this issue are dire – the widening of the digital divide, and the exclusion of billions from the benefits of AI.

    KaiOS Technologies CEO Sebastien Codeville echoed the sentiments of many when he stated, "Many people don’t have access to content on the internet and this also applies to AI. Managing the diversity of language models will help us close the digital divide." But will it be enough?

    The reality is that AI’s current language models are as narrow as the internet’s English-centric approach. Codeville’s company, KaiOS, aims to bring internet access to the unconnected, but even their efforts are limited by the language barrier. As Codeville pointed out, 90% to 95% of content on the internet is available in English, leaving the other 5% to 10% struggling to access information.

    The consequences of ignoring this issue are far-reaching. The digital divide will only widen, leaving Africa’s multilingual population in the dark ages of technology. The excluded will be left behind, unable to access the benefits of AI, and unable to participate in the global economy.

    But it’s not just about access; it’s about the language of exclusion. The language of AI is English, and it’s the language of the internet. But what about the other 2,000 languages spoken on the African continent? What about the cultures, traditions, and values that are lost in translation?

    The revolution of innovation can be beneficial for people who are not on the internet today, but only if we prioritize the language of inclusion. We need to rethink the way we approach AI, and we need to prioritize the multilingualism of Africa’s population. Anything less is a recipe for exclusion, and a recipe for disaster.

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