The One-Of-A-Kind AI Tool That Can Translate 2,000 African Languages & Turn In USD 3.6 Bn – Look Who Built It

By  |  June 5, 2019

Africa is a diverse continent with thousands of ethnic groups and many more thousands of languages. This diversity sets the continent apart as a source of pride but it also brings discord and hinders development. One developer from Nigeria wants to fix the problem with one language everyone understands – technology!

One of the fascinating features that set the African continent apart is its dynamic collection of diverse cultures. From the west to the east, and from the north to the south, it’s a whole mishmash of people of different traditions, ethnic groups, languages, and dialects that have outlived the peak of colonisation and even the dawn of civilisation.

Colonial masters have come and gone. Independence has been lost and won. Millions of lives have been lost in both man-made and natural disasters and wars. But one thing that has matched the undisputable widespread growth and progress recorded since the early times stride for stride, is the cultural diversity that has evolved and remained.

Africa is home to thousands of ethnic groups, each unique in their traditions and more commonly; languages. Take Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, for example — a country boasting some 190 million people drawn from over 250 ethnic groups and speaking over 500 languages. That kind of diversity is not always easy to manage. It’s a situation that can be just as much a curse as it could be a blessing — the Rwandan genocide makes a strong case for the former.

But apart from the odd ethnic squabble that may or may not escalate into a pogrom, the ethnic diversity does create communication barriers that could have a negative impact on socio-economic development. Arguably, that’s even a bigger problem.

In Africa, a continent where over 2,000 languages are spoken, a lack of translated information is often the key missing element between aid and the people it’s intended to help, according to Language Connect. Think about aid reaching uneducated, rural-dwelling, smallholder farmers who ironically do the most when it comes to agriculture on the continent and you get the idea.

This language barrier has created a huge disconnect between people on either side of the table and the result has been flashes of growth and development interspersed with deep canyons of shortcomings that have set the continent several years back and continues to hamper its chances of achieving all-encompassing progress.

It is the desire to put paid to such problems that have sent a Nigerian developer on a mission to bridge these language barriers and make life easier with a messaging platform that is capable of translating over 2,000 African languages.

The global Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform, known as OBTranslate, is the first of its kind and is intended to create massive jobs for Africans, and that’s as per Gabriel Emmanuel, Information Communication Technology (ICT) expert and brain behind the platform.

Emmanuel, who is the CEO of OpenBinacle; a Europe-Africa based technology company, said OBTranslate technology was built on machine learning, AI and big data analysis which identified language patterns and tasks.

In 2017, his company developed OBTalker which is a messaging app similar to Whatsapp and Telegram. It was gathered that the app is a real-time cloud-based messaging platform that supports voice and video calls.

Initially, OBTalker was designed as a text-to-speech feature that is capable of running translations in up to 26 languages. But the newly launched OBTranslate, which is an offshoot the existing design of OBTalker having incorporated some parts of the technology, is expected to have a wider reach with the many more languages in its system.

“Our goal is to break language communication barriers in rural and urban areas in Africa and it will enable self-driving cars, smartphones, linear robots and wireless technology to communicate and interact with Africans in their dialects,” said Gabriel.

“Farmers will be able to trade their goods and services without language communication barriers,” Emmanuel told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in an email.

The major task of the portal includes voice recognition and accent, messaging protocol, African-based programming languages, natural language processing, education materials, television subtitles and music lyrics, among others.

Emmanuel, a 41-year-old Nigerian from Edo State, is skilled in the field of ICT and Robotics having studied in India for a while. His foray into tech kicked off in earnest around when he was 18  when he successfully built his first software to analyse petroleum crude oil seismic data.

The innovation, which was also motivated by the need to expand the African ICT market and improve lives, has the potential to provide jobs for millions of Africans who have the capacity to teach their machine Pidgin English or their native languages, and that’s according to the Nigerian.

“Our machine language, AI algorithms with neural network connections have curated billions of task waiting for Africans who can teach our machine their local dialect.

“The first phase of the project comes with nine billion tasks, and the second phase comes with 12 billion tasks.

“It is projected to hire about 100 million Africans, with a projection of USD 3.6 Bn passive income for Africans with the capacity,” said the developer who is currently bunked up in Germany.

Based on this evidence of these efforts and many more that have sprung up in recent times, African developers appear to be intensifying efforts towards leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the purpose of solving some of the continent’s problems.

Two years ago, 40 African countries competed in the maiden FIRST Global International Robotics Competition which saw students from for students from Benin and Liberia finish in the top 12 in a contest that drew participation from 163 countries.

More than the efforts of robotics schools and innovation hubs that seem to be popping up almost everywhere in Africa, robots are being equipped with Artificial Intelligence technology that allows them to act and speak like humans as well as make facial expressions. An example is the humanoid robot Sophia which was partly developed in Ethiopia in collaboration with American company Hanson Robotics.

Lately, however, concerns bordering on robots putting young people out of work by taking over their jobs have been rife on the continent. A UN estimation from 2016 has it that robots will take away two-thirds of jobs in developing countries.

While we wait to see how it all plays out, there is hardly any doubt at this point that the machine invasion is indeed upon us. But what remains uncertain is exactly how much it would affect things and how best it can be integrated to bring about the best possible outcomes.

In any case, we’d like to think of Emmanuel’s efforts as the introductory phases of a narrative that goes something like; AI is not biased against Africans after all.

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